Japan-US ties and Korean bomb

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s tour of Japan, China and South Korea last week to rally support for tough measures against North Korea underscored Japan’s growing military dependence on Washington.

“North Korea is talking about returning to the six-party talks but we want this to happen without conditions,” Foreign Minister Taro Aso told the press last Tuesday, referring to reports from China that suggest Pyongyang is ready to abandon a second nuclear test to hold talks with Washington. Aso’s position runs alongside Washington’s demand for an unconditional return to the negotiating table by North Korea and the joint stance is too suggestive of a possible beefing up of Japan’s defence capabilities with United States support - and this is a touchy issue in East Asia.

“Dealing with North Korea is now centre-stage in East Asian regional politics. The Japan-US relationship stand is a powerful combination in the struggle to find a solution to the North Korea threat,” said Prof Jun Lio at the Japan National Graduate Institute of Politics. While critical of the communist state and supportive of economic sanctions, both countries want the US to keep the door wide open for a chance to negotiate. “Abe’s position is not necessarily going to gain peace in the region but rather stir uneasiness. What is necessary is a firm, independent policy based on reaching a peaceful solution,” said Lio. Experts also point out that Japan’s strong support for the US position on imposing tough sanctions against Pyongyang works against the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose head, Mohamed El Baradei, has warned that enforcing tough sanctions will bring “hardliners to the driving seat”.

The government’s show of support for Washington’s tough line against North Korea has raised opposition ire especially because this includes moves to revoke a domestic emergency situation law that would allow Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force to intrusively inspect North Korean and other vessels in the region along with US forces.

Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the national opposition, warned Abe in Diet (Japanese parliament) sessions last week, against haphazardly following US requests to provide more support, calling it “unjustifiable” and “a misjudgement to take steps for the time being, just because the US wants Japan to do something.” The debate was highlighted in the Japanese media.

“We agree with Ozawa. There is no good justification for applying the law,” wrote the liberal Asahi newspaper on October 20.

Prof. Jeff Kingston, Asia expert at Temple University, Tokyo campus, explains that Abe has long been a keen proponent of changing Japan’s pacifist constitution and that North Korea’s October 9 nuclear test has given him the opportunity to push ahead. “The nuclear test has put wind in Abe’s sails making the public see changes in the constitution as legitimate to protect Japan. Kim Jong Il has done Abe a favour,” he said.

Still, Kingston views the growing defence alliance in East Asia region as actually working to contain Japan’s activism in the region. “Japan has publicly stated that it will not go nuclear and this has been reaffirmed by Rice. The position sends the important message of security in East Asia under the leadership of the United States,’’ he pointed out. — IPS