One year ago, of course, Japan was praised for its swift reaction to the test, imposing a broad spectrum of economic sanctions on its pariah neighbor.
And now? The Japanese government has renewed its sanctions, which prohibit the import of all North Korean goods and bans North Korean ships from Japanese ports, for another six months. The reason, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura, is that there has been inadequate progress on the abductions issue (no surprise there).
Based on the Japanese government’s actions, one could easily forget that four other countries have equal or greater stakes in resolving the situation on the Korean peninsula. And so Japan continues to free ride on the efforts and sacrifices of others, not least the US, its most important ally. The US — or more specifically Chris Hill, with the backing of Secretary Rice and the president — is pushing hard and is actually willing to deal with a regime that not too along was a charter member of the “Axis of Evil.” Japan, the country with the most to fear from North Korea’s arsenal, is also contributing the least to efforts to implement an agreement to neutralize it.
Looks like Mr. Fukuda will not be bucking the LDP’s conservatives after all — not altogether surprising given his vulnerable position.
Meanwhile, I think the difference between Japan’s approaches to the North Korea and Afghanistan issues is revealing. On the former, Japan is, of course, pursuing a hard line independent of the US; in addressing what its leaders (and many of its people) believe to be a multi-dimensional threat to national security, Japan is acting pretty much alone, with little or no consideration of its international reputation or the desires of its partners. In regard to the latter, the government claims to be acting out of deference both to the US but also to the international community, especially the countries participating in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. At the same time, however, the Japanese government supports doing the minimum necessary to earn the respect of other nations.
Accordingly, for all the talk of Japan’s normalization, it turns out to be not only uneven across time — it has experienced lags and backsliding — but also across space: Japan is not prepared to risk anything substantial in an area in which its interests are not directly affected. This impression is reinforced when one considers that the implicit reasoning behind Japan’s support for the Iraq war, for example, was that supporting the US would firm up US support for Japan vis-a-vis North Korea.
Of course, all this amounts to Japan’s being a fairly typical middling power, concerned more about its fundamental security interests — which necessarily involve its periphery — than about abstract concerns for global order and stability. Japan’s normalization will likely continue to be conditional, which is worth keeping in mind when reading more hysterical accounts of Japan’s changing security policy.