Japan’s Options with North Korea

The recent launches of short-range missiles by North Korea have once again put the spotlight on events in the Korean peninsula and its impact, particularly on Japan. While it is clear from these tests that North Korea is trying to ratchet up the tensions and force President Trump to the negotiating table once again, the launches once again highlight the tensions that go back for decades between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

Pyongyang has refused to enter into talks with Seoul although South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a recent speech had vowed to “unite the Korean peninsula by 2045” and has held out the olive branch to Pyongyang on many other occasions.

Where does that leave Japan? Tokyo has little room for maneuver. Its options must tally with those of its strongest ally, the United States, which is problematical at best, given the US president’s capacity for unpredictability. At the moment, President Donald Trump seems to have fallen for the antics of the North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un. To great fanfare, he met with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in late June on his way back from the G20 Summit in Osaka, becoming the first US President ever to set foot in North Korea. Before that he had met Kim Jong-un in summits in Singapore and Vietnam.

Because of Japan’s peacetime constitution despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wish to amend it, Japan is unable to take any steps on its own. The country’s current tensions with South Korea over trade issues has also limited its options. Last month, Tokyo imposed export restrictions on three major industrial materials used by companies in South Korea to make semiconductors and display screens. Tokyo also removed Seoul from an export “white list” and in retaliation, South Korea has also dropped Japan as a favored export partner.

North Korea is likely to up the ante by firing more missiles even closer to Japan, thereby putting more pressure on Tokyo to react. What is clear from all this is Pyongyang is desperate to get back to the negotiating table after a March debacle in Hanoi, when the US abruptly walked away from a possible agreement on denuclearization, meant a major diplomatic loss of face for North Korea.

North Korea is also reeling under the impact of international sanctions and what has made it worse is that North Korea’s main benefactor, China, has also been at the receiving end of President’s Trump’s ire and is no mood to continue to treat Kim Jong-un and his regime with kid gloves.

So what are Japan’s options?

First, Tokyo will have to use the personal rapport between PM Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to put pressure on North Korea, a difficult prospect given cool relations between Tokyo and Moscow. Though Japan and Russia still have a territorial dispute extending back to Soviet seizure of Tokyo territory at the end of World War II, they could put it on the backburner for now.

Second, Tokyo would be wise to choose not to react to these missile tests by the North, as doing so will only encourage Pyongyang to continue with the same.

Third, Abe will have to convince his “sometime” friend, President Trump, that these tests also represent a threat to American interests. Unless he is able to do so, North Korea will keep taking advantage of the dissonance between Japan and the United States on this issue, which also brings US troops stationed in Japan within striking range of North Korean short-range missiles.

Fourth, Tokyo will also have to realize that Pyongyang may try to force it in the near future to cough up a substantial amount of money in order for the two countries to come to the negotiating table. Pyongyang understands that the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the North is a major issue for Tokyo and personally for Prime Minister Abe.

However, sooner rather than later, Japan will have to come up with a concerted strategy to tackle the North’s increasingly provocative shenanigans. Pyongyang has been unhappy with the recent war drills between the US and South Korea and wants to make that clear. However, at the moment, President Trump has many things to worry about (especially the trade tensions with China and the upcoming Presidential elections) and hence North Korea is not necessarily on his radar screen, especially after the US walked away from the potential Hanoi agreement. Kim Jong-un knows that and hence is trying to catch President Trump’s attention with these missile launches.

However, Tokyo will have to be careful to avoid being the fall guy in this game of one-upmanship in Northeast Asia as both Pyongyang and Washington raise the stakes.

Rupakjyoti Borah is a Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo. He was earlier a Visiting Research Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Tokyo. The views expressed here are personal.