North Korea tops Abe’s agenda

Many foreign policy challenges lie ahead for Japan’s new PM, Shinzo Abe, but his most pressing concern is much closer at hand: North Korea, especially in the wake of its declaration of a nuclear test on October 9.

Since then, Japan has been lobbying for strong UN-backed sanctions and implemented even stronger unilateral measures. This has now acquired urgency in Japan’s foreign policy environment, where officials were looking at China as an economic competitor and potential military challenge, and questions are arising about Tokyo’s support for US policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Abe is known

for his harsh view of North Korea,” says former deputy PM Hitoshi Tanaka, who was responsible for planning former PM Junichiro Koizumi’s 2002 surprise trip to Pyongyang.

Such views, Tanaka explains, might put Japan in a good position to play a significant role in resolving the current nuclear crisis, in part because Abe does not need to prove his nationalist credentials and because North Korea respects such power politics. But, Tanaka cautions, “I don’t think any country, neither the US nor Japan, can play a good negotiating role if there is a hole, like China helping North Korea or South Korea helping North Korea.”

Tanaka was in Washington, DC to speak at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Asian Voices series, to address a number of critical foreign policy topics facing the new Japanese leadership. The crisis in North Korea, he argues, demands more than simply a coordinated approach among countries and a clear statement of the bottom line. Dealing with North Korea requires both preparing for the worst and committing to serious negotiations, he adds. Well-coordinated diplomacy holds out the best hope, however slim, for persuading North Korea to change the course of its policy, Tanaka explains. He recommends that “the US government this time be prepared for very serious negotiations mandated by the very top of the government.” In exchange for verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear programme, North Korea would need something in exchange.

According to Mindy Kotler, the director of Asia Policy Point, a number of polls throughout the Koizumi era demonstrated that the Japanese were not particularly interested in international relations or in Japan taking on a more substantial global role. His dual challenge, then, was to boost the economy and shift public attitude toward a more global role for Japanese foreign and military policy. To change public attitudes about security, Kotler says, “Koizumi had to make the neighbourhood look a little dangerous.” The dangers that Koizumi described, whether North Korea’s bomb or China’s nationalism, are now Abe’s problems.

According to Tanaka, Abe’s best strategy lies in negotiating a comprehensive resolution to the nuclear crisis with North Korea, a grand bargain with China on economic, security and historical issues, and a set of multifaceted security arrangements with the US as well as countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and India. Whether he will take a consistently hard line remains unclear. Kotler believes the new PM’s approach to foreign policy will not be as instrumental as that of his predecessor: “Abe truly believes these conservative views about how the world works.” — IPS