After Jang Song Thaek’s purge and subsequent execution earlier this month, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera stated the obvious stressing, “North Korea might be a more radical place in the future”. The purge also resulted in the usual round of high-level consultations between US, Japan and Korea to discuss any potential instability in Pyongyang. And then there was the inevitable condemnation of Tokyo’s “bluster and exaggeration of the North Korean threat” in the Rodong Sinmun. The North also slammed Japan’s Prime Minister Abe for his release of a controversial National Security Strategy that, unsurprisingly, indicates Pyongyang as a serious security threat to Japan.
This charade has been rather formulaic in Tokyo’s ties with Pyongyang. But behind this posturing is a very vulnerable relationship with a host of uncertainties. After Jang’s purge, Abe repeated his long-stated offer to meet with Kim Jong-Un if the North Korean leader is willing to deal with the long simmering issue of Japan’s abductees. Abe has taken a strong line on the North throughout his political career, carrying over from his first premiership in 2006-7, and has made it a political priority to resolve the abduction issue under his watch. For example, despite repeated provocations by the North, Abe sent his special envoy Isao Iijima to Pyongyang last May for discussions on the lingering dispute. At the time Abe endorsed a summit with Kim stating, “If a summit meeting is deemed as an important means in considering ways to resolve the abduction issue, we must take it into consideration as a matter of course in negotiating with them. Our fundamental objective is to resolve the abduction issue, including the return of all abductees, revelation of the truth and the handover of the perpetrator to Japan.”
Of course, complicating Abe’s desire for a political victory on the abduction issue is the fragile security situation on the Korean peninsula. Despite acute fears of Chinese encroachment in the East China Sea, conflict on the Korean Peninsula remains the real nightmare scenario for Japan. Japan security community is still transfixed by the “missile shock” in 2006 when North Korea launched several missiles into the Sea of Japan and tested its long range Taepodong-2 missile. Seven years later, the ballistic missile threat from the North remains the one of most pressing defense concerns for the newly prominent Self Defense Forces. Of less concern from a Japanese defense perspective is North Korea’s million man army or its significant – but aging – navy. As the North continues to modernize its ballistic missile technology and improve accuracy and range, Japan will continue to nervously hedge through anti-ballistic missile defense and extended deterrence commitments from the US. These threat perceptions are multiplying alongside the North’s sustained intransigence of scaling back or disarming its nuclear weapons program.
Compounding the threat of potential missile attacks from the North is Pyongyang’s evolving nuclear weapons program. The North has already conducted three nuclear tests (including one this past February) and has added uranium enrichment capabilities to its pre-existing stock of weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea also has an extensive Chemical Weapons program which poses a risk to Japan and the region. Japan severed most official diplomatic channels to North Korea after its failed missile test in April 2009 and its second nuclear test the following month. The stalled Six-Party talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program have also been suspended since these incidents. Earlier this year there had been some hope of a potential resumption of the nuclear talks after the Leap Year deal in which North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and implement a moratorium on its long range missile and nuclear tests in exchange for the U.S. commitment to send 240,000 tons of food aid. This pact was scuttled by yet another failed missile test this past spring.
This all was a dramatic turnaround from the grand bargain that was struck between Japan and North Korea in 2002 labeled the Pyongyang Declaration. At the time, former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il signed the high level statement that promised both countries “would make every possible effort for an early normalization of the relations”. The pact essentially covered the full gamut of issues between the two countries including the abduction issue, Japanese colonialism from World War II, and the North’s missile tests and nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, sentiment in both countries fueled the Declaration’s demise and it was put into the dustbin after both sides sparred publicly over the resolution of the abduction issue and Pyongyang’s WMD program.
But aside from the security challenges and the enormous trust deficit between the two, there are other reasons that will essentially keep Tokyo’s plans for engagement with the North on the backburner. The status of Japan’s downtrodden ties with South Korea is one major factor. While Seoul’s dispute with Tokyo focuses mainly on historical and territorial issues, it has increasingly encompassed Japan’s policy on North Korea as evidenced by South Korea’s harsh condemnation of the Iijima visit last May. Seoul has also warned Japan that it should exclude any potential missions against North Korea when reinterpreting its right to collective self-defense. Additionally, the two have failed to integrate their efforts more closely on the North due to failed pacts on cross servicing and information sharing. Finally, this lack of trust between Japan and South Korea has flustered attempts to adequately prepare for a collapse scenario or a coup d’état that would unseat the Kim regime.
Therefore, while nuanced engagement with North Korea has the possibility to accrue significant political benefits for Abe, it remains a risky move for Tokyo. After the Jang purge, Japan will likely continue to tip-toe its relationship with North Korea and focus on mitigating provocations and conflict rather than seeking a trip for Abe to Pyongyang.
J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan and Chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum.
Image: Creative Commons/Flickr User Stephan.