The consequences of the US-Japan rift on North Korea

With North Korea expected to deliver its account of its nuclear program Thursday — excluding its existing nuclear weapons, which Chris Hill has said will be addressed in the next round — the US is prepared to move forward in removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The long-awaited blow to the US-Japan alliance has been landed, even as the Fukuda government has agreed to go along with the US move.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Fukuda said that he hoped this would contribute to progress on the nuclear front, even as he said that he looks forward to further cooperation with the US in resolving the abductions issue. At the same time, Machimura Nobutaka, in a press conference Tuesday morning, cautioned the US to examine the North Korean report carefully before proceeding, a lame statement of the sheer helplessness of the Fukuda government’s position.

The US will go forward, and the Japanese government will follow along meekly behind — ignoring the wishes of the conservatives (and a bulk of the Japanese public) that North Korea should stay on the list until it follows through on the latest agreement on the abductees. They want North Korea’s position on the terrorism list to remain linked to acts of terrorism (however long ago they occurred); the US, perhaps acknowledging that North Korea is no longer a state sponsor of terrorism (at least against other countries), is prepared to link removal to another, arguably more important issue. As argued in an article in this week’s AERA, this latest move may trigger a spasm of protest from the public. It will be the latest and perhaps greatest charge in the conservative case against Mr. Fukuda: giving in to both the US and North Korea and abandoning the abductees, while getting nothing but an oral promise from the US that it will continue to pressure North Korea on the abductees. This probably destroys whatever chance Mr. Fukuda had of staying in power long enough to lead the LDP into the next general election.

That said, it is worth asking how Abe Shinzo would have handled this had it happened under his watch as prime minister.

His admirers seem to think that he would have been able to say no to the US. The bloggers at Pride of Japan ended a post on this issue with the statement, “I think that the time demands the appearance of a politician with backbone, like former Prime Minister Abe.”

But would Mr. Abe have stood up to the US in this case and said no, his government will not support removing North Korea from the list? What would he do instead? What could he do instead? Would he respond by tightening Japanese sanctions even more? A US move to lift sanctions on North Korea makes Japan’s sanctions, no matter how astringent, that much less effective. What would rejecting the US position at this point do but isolate Japan further and make it even less likely that North Korea would cooperate in resolving the abductions issue? Mr. Abe might have spoken in harsh terms, he might have appealed directly to President Bush for a promise that the US will continue to help on the abductions, but ultimately I suspect that Mr. Abe too would fall into line.

I am fine with the turn that the six-party talks are taking. I think that the gain of neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear program is a worthy goal, and that it should take priority to issues like the abductions issue. If lifting sanctions bit by bit — effectively a series of small bribes — moderates North Korea’s behavior and buys the region’s powers some time to plan for the tsunami of instability that will likely follow Kim Jong-il’s death by keeping the Korean Peninsula stable, then the talks will have been successful. The US has had little choice but to talk (and to talk with China’s assistance) because it had no other option short of doing nothing. Mr. Hill has made the most of a poor situation. All of which is why I opposed the Abe government’s pulling Japan out of this process. Japan, like the US, had no real way to compel North Korea to change its behavior. As the country that may be most threatened by a nuclear North Korea, it should have been in the lead, alongside the US and China, in finding a way to defuse the situation, if not disarm North Korea. Instead it opted out of the process, on the grounds of North Korea intransgience on the abductees.

I have little sympathy with the argument that the abductees are a primary “national interest,” on the grounds that the Japanese government must secure the lives of every Japanese citizen. (Mr. Abe makes a variation of this argument at length in Utsukushi kuni e.) Does it rank somewhere on the list of Japanese national interests? Probably. Is it a top interest that should take priority over other interests like, say, stability on the Korean Peninsula, good relations with Japan’s neighbors, and a diminished threat from North Korea? I would argue no. The deal may yet fall apart due to another shift by North Korea or domestic opposition in the US (Steve Clemons has the details on the situation in Washington) — but given the lack of other options, it has been a useful effort, one in which Japan should have played more than a begrudging role.

The failure of the US to explain its reasoning more fully — and the failure of Japan to be more flexible in its defense of its national interests — have resulted in a blow to the alliance, in that both Japanese elites and the Japanese public have lost confidence in the US as an ally. That blow may have been unavoidable: I suspect that part of the reason for the loss of confidence, especially among elites, is that after Japan gave its full-throated support to the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would receive equally full-throated support in dealing with North Korea. The US wasted opportunities to disabuse Japan of that idea and left Mr. Hill to bear the brunt of Japanese anger; the president should have made it explicitly clear why the US shifted on North Korea. But even then it is likely that there would still be a feeling of betrayal among Japanese.

Where will the US-Japan relationship go from here? The alliance will survive, but I expect that future Japanese governments will be less trusting of the US. I would not go so far as journalist Aoki Naoto (author of a book entitled A State That Could Become An Enemy: USA), who argues that this is the beginning of an antagonistic relationship between the US and Japan and the start of a US-China security relationship. In fact, the US shift on North Korea might prove to be a good thing for the alliance. As a result of having been “abandoned” in the six-party talks, Japan may finally learn to say no to the US, which could result in a stronger, more effective partnership in which Japan feels less obligated to do whatever the US asks. Much like Japan’s 1990 failure in responding to the Gulf crisis led to a decade of soul-searching for Japan’s foreign policy establishment, so too might this incident prompt soul-searching that leads to a Japan better able to articulate its interests to the US, even if it means disagreement between Washington and Tokyo.

As in the aftermath of the Gulf crisis, Ozawa Ichiro may show the way. Asked to comment on the developments in the six-party talks, Mr. Ozawa stated that Japan has little ability to influence US strategy, and added on the abductees, “The US has until now said good things to the abductee families, but it did not take our national strategy and our interests into account at all.” I expect that should the DPJ form a government in the near future, it will be much less inclined to follow the US in the way that LDP governments have (especially LDP governments under Messrs. Koizumi and Abe).

As a result of the six-party talks, future LDP governments may share Mr. Ozawa’s assessment.

7 thoughts on “The consequences of the US-Japan rift on North Korea

  1. Anonymous

    Shinzo Abe would probably have followed Washington\’s footsteps on abductee issues.But that\’s not the point.The point is it would have acceralate his other objective,constitutional revision.And that is what Japan needs before the huge shift in American asia policy gets completed,which is why Shinzo Abe mattered and Yasuo Fukuda does not.Aceface


  2. The hypocracy. Japan laments the NK abduction issue while at the same time condoning the abduction of children back to Japan by a Japanese parent from a non-Japanese parent.Plus, the issue of nukes is much bigger than the internal Japanese issue of the abduction of a dozen people. Japan\’s priorities are not straight.


  3. Anonymous

    That is just absurd.The parental abduction is one thing,abduction by government agancy is something completely different.Besides,Japan is schedule to sign Hague treaty by 2010.Anyone who have conducted parental abduction will probably ends up going to jail by that time.Japan does have bigger issue of nukes in Korea.But then again,it is also the concern of other four members of the six party talks,and Pyongyang had made it clear that they will only talk to Washington on this.So there is no role for Tokyo to play on this,hence the abduction comes to the top of the priorities of our concern since we have some leverage.Simple as that.Aceface


  4. Anonymous

    The point that the United States and this blogger have missed is that North Korea has a lengthy history of not keeping the promises of their own while Kim Jong Il seeks for the substances from the others in return.At the current stage of the negotiations, all North Korea has to do is to declare how much plutonium they have produced and have in possession. Their nuclear arms remain active in their hand and still pose threat to Japan and the United States alike. They don\’t even have to include their uranium based project they have been pursuing on the side. What the world has seen so far this time is the same old missteps that the United States, Japan, South Korea have taken in the past. Why should North Korea change in behavior as they have been getting what they want one way or the other by sitting tight?Why should anybody give up anything now for no reason while we enjoy North Korea is gradually wasting itself to the end? It is the politicians of the United States and Japan that have been giving in to North Korea because they want to have something to show for their own consumption.It\’s so sad and pathetic that the United States, so called the only Super Power, became gutless sissy and can\’t wait a little more time to see the Asia\’s \”gangsta\” going down the tube. This is merely a matter of \”Wait a little more. No purchase or action required.\”


  5. Not absurd. The Japanese Government condoned these parental abductions for so many years. Finally, under international pressure, they state they will abide by the international treaty by 2010.Please ask an American parent, usually a father, back in the United States whether it is completely different. To that parent, an abduction is an abduction and the fact that the Japanese government condoned it is the same to them. They see the hypocracy.


  6. Anonymous

    \”To that parent, an abduction is an abduction and the fact that the Japanese government condoned it is the same to them. They see the hypocracy.\”Not to me.And at least the kids can stay with their mothers in their case.Also you might want to think why and who pushed these women to the edge to have them taking their children and flew back to Japan in the first place.Anyway their agony may ends around by 2010,but not that of parents of the NK abductee.Aceface


  7. Anonymous

    I am in full agreement with your views in this article as I have myself made clear in the past. There is one non-minor point to be made here in regard to the decision of the Bush administration to bypass Japanese objections in pursuit of the denuclearization objective without consultation. The Abe government had the right of course to lodge these objections but failed to make clear to Condi Rice and Chris Hill about their strong sentiments regarding the abduction violations to human rights as they saw it. On the other hand, US failure to respond appropriately and sympathetically to Japanese objections lie in my mind more with Condi Rice than with Chris Hill who was under strict orders to proceed in a timely manner (i.e. no delays) with the denuclearization issue at the six-party talks. As the cabinet officer in overall charge of foreign policy, Rice should have been more cautious and sensitive to the sentiments on the Japanese side and offered some sort of compensation or compromise to mitigate the diplomatic chaos that followed.


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