North Korea’s shelling Tuesday of a South Korean island close to their disputed sea border not only prompted Seoul to retaliate, but also left Tokyo with fresh domestic and foreign policy headaches.
Pyongyang’s act of belligerence has dominated the news here, stirring up the usual hysteria that occurs every time Kim Jong-Il sneezes in the direction of Seoul, spits missiles over Japan, or parades some shiny new nuclear technology.
The Japanese government, naturally, is monitoring events closely. Prime Minister Naoto Kan convened an emergency Cabinet meeting and set up an information coordination office. Yoshito Sengoku, the government’s top spokesman, blasted Pyongyang’s actions as ‘intolerable,’ while also sensibly pointing out that the shelling had no immediate impact on Japan and that the public should remain calm.
Japan’s Self-Defence Forces also are on heightened alert, with its maritime arm planning to step up surveillance aircraft patrols and, according to the Nikkei, considering a dispatch of Aegis-equipped destroyers to neighbouring waters.
The Metropolitan Police Department doubled the number of officers stationed around the Tokyo headquarters offices of Chongryon (Pyongyang’s de facto government mission in Japan) to deal with any potential attacks by rightists.
The heightening tension also sent share prices south when the Tokyo Stock Exchange reopened after a holiday Tuesday, with the Nikkei 225 Stock Average falling 1 percent in Wednesday morning trading.
The skirmish poses a number of practical questions for the Democratic Party of Japan-led government.
The government had been faced with the political hot potato of whether to provide subsidies to Pyongyang-aligned schools in Japan as part of a programme to make state school education free for high school students. The issue had been a thorn in the side of the DPJ, with the party divided on whether to stick to its guns and make high school education free for all students, or to play the popularist card and withhold funding from these schools that teach the juche ideology of Kim Il-sung (North Korea’s founder). Tuesday’s incident on the Korean border has now muddied the issue further, and could force the government’s hand in excluding these schools from the free education scheme.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda indicated Wednesday that the government is considering tightening sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom—an approach that has yet to yield peaceful dividends. Perhaps stricter controls on Japan’s ubiquitous pachinko parlours would be a start (many of these are owned by Korean residents who are said to ship profits off to Pyongyang).
Tuesday’s incident, coupled with Japan’s recent diplomatic spats with China and Russia, has prompted speculation that Japan (and South Korea) will fall deeper into the protective arms of United States, with some commentators predicting that Japan will now submit to the will of Washington over the problematic issue of the US base relocation in Okinawa.
But while Tokyo’s ears are still ringing from this latest Korean fracas, it must maintain its perspective and perform a foreign policy balancing act. It has to reassure the Japanese public of its safety, keep Okinawans who want to see the back of the Americans happy, maintain strong ties with Washington and send a clear message to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader-in-waiting, that it’s not a good idea to follow in his father’s belligerent footsteps.