Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received a phone call from U.S. President Donald Trump in the morning on March 9. Trump proudly said that he had “good news”: A summit would be held between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May. However, for Tokyo, honestly speaking, it was not happy news. Japanese officers were shocked by how easily the United States changed its hawkish stance toward North Korea. They had strongly believed that Japan and the U.S. had been keeping solidarity by maintaining maximum pressure on North Korea.
“The U.S. has made a decision completely beyond Japan. Japan has been left out of the picture,” said a former defense minister.
Tokyo is now cautiously observing the process moving toward a U.S.-North Korea dialogue and is concerned that negotiations on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula might exclude Japan’s views.
Some Japanese security experts have noted that Tokyo has taken one of the toughest stances toward North Korea among the international community. “Japan’s hard-line stance has been more overwhelming than the U.S. Other countries sometimes mention that the final goal of maximum pressure is to put North Korea on the table for dialogue, but Japan rarely points out the importance of talks,” said a senior officer of the Ministry of Defense on condition of anonymity.
The Abe administration has emphasized the North Korea crisis as a “national threat” since the lower house election last October. During the campaign, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera implied that a military clash might occur between the U.S. and North Korea in the near future: “The security tensions will escalate from the end of this year to next year. Japan might experience the tensions for the first time in a real sense since the end of World War II.”
Needless to say, the Abe administration has not been divided into the “pressure school” and the “dialogue school.” It seems that Japan has maintained the policy of prioritizing maximum pressure on North Korea with strong solidarity. The backdrop of Japan’s hawkish attitude toward North Korea stems from two sources: geopolitics and Abe’s leadership.
First, Japan has faced the North Korean security threat for the past few decades as Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles have already achieved the capability to cover the Japanese archipelago. North Korea launched a Taepodong-1, flying over Japanese territory for the first time in 1998. Subsequently, as North Korea has continuously developed its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. North Korea fired ballistic missiles over Hokkaido twice last year. Some security experts think that if the international community officially allowed North Korea to possess nuclear weapons, it would increasingly have influences on neighboring countries, and eventually North Korea might expel U.S. Forces Korea from South Korea as a pretext for achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula.
“In that case, Japan would lose the crucial buffer against not only North Korea but also China, and expose itself directly to the security threat surrounding Japan,” said a senior Japanese government official. Thus, while many Japanese officials were critical of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” — seeing it as a naïve policy — they welcomed Trump’s earlier bellicose rhetoric with regard to the North Korea issue.
Second, the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strongly affected Japan’s diplomatic policy. It can be said that Abe has taken a hard-line stance toward North Korea due to the abduction issue: the fact that Japanese nationals were abducted by North Korea from the 1970s through the 1980s. Abe has been tackling that issue since his entire political career.
“The abduction issue is not a simple story that Japanese people were abducted. It is the criminal activities that the North Korean spy vessels committed with the collaborators in Japan. Moreover, we should take it as a serious security issue for Japan that North Korea carried out special operations toward South Korea or Japan, and committed international terrorism,” said Abe in his interview when he was deputy chief cabinet secretary in 2003.
After Abe returned to power in 2012, it seems that his uncompromising policy on the North Korea crisis has been unshakeable. “For North Korea, dialogue was instead the best means of deceiving us and buying time… Again and again, [our] attempts to resolve issues through dialogue have all come to naught… What is needed to do that is not dialogue, but pressure,” said Abe in his address at the U.N. General Assembly last September.
To cope with the North Korea crisis, Abe often emphasizes the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. There is no doubt that security ties between Japan and the U.S. have strengthened further under the Abe administration. The interoperability between the U.S. forces and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) was dramatically advanced after the revision of Guidelines for the U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation in 2015.
The U.S. and Japan continue to meticulously consult with each other on what kind of defense equipment they would use in the joint-exercises through the Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM) newly established in the revised Guidelines, according to several senior officials of the MOFA and the MOD. In case the U.S. forces exercise the Flexible Deterrent Options (FDO) through deploying aircraft carriers and strategic bombers around the Korean Peninsula, the SDF can join and support the FDO based on the revised Guideline. Besides that, due to the new security legislation enacted in 2015, the SDF can make a more proactive contribution to the U.S forces such as protecting the U.S. forces’ assets.
Senior officers of U.S Forces Japan highly appreciate the new roles for the SDF. “The most important thing, when we put the U.S. forces and the Japanese forces together, is that we need to be able to rely on and count on each other. There have been many great changes recently in Japan… Together as one force, we need to defend Japan, and that is the role that we expect of the Japanese in working with United States forces, is that as one team, that we get together and we defend this great nation,” said U.S. Forces Japan Commander Lieutenant General Jerry Martinez in an interview.
It seems that everything is going well with respect to the deepening of the U.S-Japan alliance. However, from Japan’s viewpoint, the U.S.-Japan alliance has two negative factors: a Japanese fear of abandonment by the U.S. due to the U.S.-North Korea dialogue, and the fear of entrapment in a potential nuclear war.
“We should not have an optimistic view that North Korea will abandon the nuclear weapons which it has finally acquired,” said a senior official of the Ministry of Defense with respect to the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un.
If the U.S.-North Korea dialogue focuses on freezing the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), Japan will be left behind by the United States under the threat of North Korea because Japan has already been determined to be within the range of its ballistic missiles. Tokyo has concluded that the Trump administration, unlike the Abe administration, has been divided into two groups: the “dialogue school” and the “pressure school.” Therefore, Tokyo recognizes that Japan always has to encourage the “pressure school” of the U.S. government by stressing the benefit of hard-line policies toward North Korea.
On the other hand, at the same time Japan fears a potential nuclear war. According to research published on the website 38 North, if North Korea used nuclear weapons, it is estimated that the fatalities in Seoul and Tokyo would reach 2.1 million. As reported in the poll conducted by the Cabinet Office this January, 85.5 percent of Japanese think that Japan is at risk of entrapment in war. It is hard to deny that while Japan is promoting the policy of maximum pressure, in reality, Japan wants to avoid a full-fledged nuclear war with North Korea.
It could be said that Japan has been in a dilemma in terms of the U.S.-Japan alliance under the threat of North Korea. Some security experts think that if the U.S. and Japan fail to manage the long-held alliance, it is feared that not only North Korea but also China and Russia would have greater influences on the Asia-Pacific region.
“I believe that the U.S.-Japan alliance has being tested more than ever before since the end of World War II. It is very difficult to anticipate if the crisis will end with dialogue or military options, but I can say that Japanese people will carefully examine the results of the crisis whether we should have maintained the alliance with the U.S. for about 70 years or not,” said a senior Japanese government official.
Abe will visit the U.S. in April in order to remind Trump not to compromise with North Korea so easily, but it is hard to predict what kind of action Trump will take on behalf of Japan in the upcoming U.S-North Korea dialogue.
Koji Sonoda is a Washington Correspondent for The Asahi Shimbun, and a former Associate of the Program on U.S-Japan Relations at Harvard University.