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Naoto Kan’s Remarks strain Relations with South Korea

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • December 20, 2010

    When the people of Japan gave a mandate to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and dethroned the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), they had hoped that the former will bail out the country from its prolonged recession. That hope soon dissipated after Hatoyama Yukio bungled on several fronts: a foreign policy independent of the United States that he sought to craft, an impracticable position on the relocation of the Futenma airbase, and policy on social welfare measures that proved unsustainable. Now Kan Naoto is proving no better. His choice of some Cabinet colleagues has proved wrong, with the Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida quitting office over his “job is easy” gaffe. Now Kan himself is embroiled in a controversy over his suggestion that Japanese troops could be dispatched to the Korean peninsula if North Korea were to collapse. While meeting the families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, Kan ignited the furore when he said Tokyo and Seoul were discussing plans to “allow our troops to conduct rescue operations in case of contingencies.”

    If Kan’s intention was aimed at shoring up his domestic support base where his approval rating plummeted to 21 per cent, the lowest since his assumption to office in June 2010, it has proved to be counterproductive.

    The intention to protect the people of Japanese origin and Japanese in the Korean peninsula in an emergency situation may be laudable. But given the ever-present memory in neighbouring countries of the past activities and the history of the Japanese army, his statement has raised the alarming spectre of a possible revival of Japanese militarism. At a time when the North Korean issue is a matter of worry for both Japan and South Korea, Kan’s suggestions of dispatching Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF) to whisk Japanese nationals out of harm’s way has turned a traditionally uneasy relationship between Japan and South Korea chillier. Kan’s remarks came following North Korea’s shelling of a Yellow Sea Island in November 2010 that raised the spectre of war on the Korean peninsula. Both Japan and South Korea being close allies of the United States, it becomes problematic for the latter to engage with North Korea especially since China has not extended the desired cooperation on resolving the North Korean issue. Though Kan’s comments were meant to reassure Japanese citizens about the potential threats from North Korea and China, it proved to be counterproductive as it raised concerns about the likelihood of Japanese rearmament.

    There are 28,000 Japanese citizens residing in South Korea. There are also a small number of Japanese in North Korea who were abducted by the Pyongyang regime in the 1970s and 1980s. The abduction issue has proved to be thorny between Japan and North Korea and remains unresolved. Like the Chinese, the Korean people have not forgotten Japan’s decades-long brutal colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 until its defeat in World War II in 1945. Expectedly, Kan’s remarks received a frosty response in Korea. The South Korean government reacted by saying that the remarks were “imprudent” and “unexpected”.

    President Lee Myung-Bak’s government rejected the idea by saying that it “had never been discussed or brought up between the two countries.” He also said that such talks gave an “inappropriately alarmist slant on the security situation on the peninsula.” The President’s office issued a statement that said the “comment should be viewed as a slip of tongue that is never feasible.” Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at Seoul’s Institute for National Security Strategy, said that many Koreans still recall “the brutality of Japanese colonization, so it’s still not possible to talk of better military ties with Tokyo.” South Korea “will not accept any military involvement with Japan, no matter what the outside threat.”

    The reaction within Japan was also one of dismay. Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the tiny opposition Social Democratic Party and one-time coalition partner of the DPJ, labelled Kan’s comments as “appalling”. She further said that if the SDF are dispatched to the peninsula, they might get engaged in war. The DPJ has been criticized for attempting to do something different from what the LDP had done for more than five decades, without realizing that such a position may create more controversy rather than addressing the intended issue. Lack of political experience in governing the country could have been behind Kan’s comments.

    Indeed, after assuming office, Kan had created a controversy on another foreign affairs issue, namely, his handling of the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute with China. This time, he is again being criticized for suggesting the dispatch of the SDF which would constitute a breach of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, which restricts the SDF’s role to “self-defence” and prevents it from participating in expeditionary sorties, except in UN peacekeeping missions.

    The significance of the timing of Kan’s comments cannot be ignored as Japan is in the midst of a major review of its defence policy, likely to be released in December 2010 itself and therefore foreign policy issues are likely to dominate public discourse within Japan. The National Defence Program Guideline, the first since 2004 and the first since Kan’s DPJ came to power, is likely to put emphasis on the growing threats from China and therefore reorient Japan’s defence needs, thereby replacing the earlier doctrine which focused on defending against a possible invasion from Russia. Like China, Seoul is closely watching this as well.

    Even China urged Tokyo to consider the feelings of Asian neighbours on military matters since the historical baggage continues to affect Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. Both China and South Korea were victims of Japan’s military aggression before and during World War II and therefore both these countries are very sensitive on this matter.

    Following sharp reactions from South Korea and China, and from within Japan, the Kan government had to retract from its stated position. Yoshito Sengoku, Chief Cabinet Secretary, took back Kan’s remarks by saying that “there is absolutely no such plan” and therefore “there are no talks (with South Korea).” Sengoku said, “it isn’t that easy” to dispatch the SDF given the history of Japan’s colonization of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Even if South Korea would have agreed, there is no guarantee that North Korea would not have reacted sharply, exacerbating a possible nuclear conflagration. Further, were Seoul to be attacked, other countries such as the United States, Australia, the Philippines and others would surely divert military transport to evacuate the citizens of Japan and of other countries. It is possible that Kan’s remarks were misinterpreted. What he probably meant while speaking to the families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea was that his government will prepare a plan to rescue the abductees in the event of a contingency on the Korean peninsula or political chaos in the northern part of the Peninsula. As a political leader, he was sympathizing with the families of the abductees in a humane way.

    Kan’s idea of rescuing Japanese nationals might have been laudable but it is too simplistic to assume that the North would have allowed that to happen. Had it been the case, the abductees issue would have been resolved a long time back. In any case, under battle conditions, dispatching the SDF to rescue civilians without precise information about their locations would have ended most likely in failure. Having retracted his remarks, Kan cannot be sure of assuaging anger in both the Koreas. In any case, a Japanese military response without authorization by the United States in the event of a direct attack on its territory would be a difficult proposition. At the moment, Japan is under no direct threat from the North Korea, except that the North’s ICBMs flew over Japan’s airspace some years ago. Any dispatch of the SDF would have escalated tensions in the region, which is already fragile. Therefore, the role of the SDF in a conflict situation would remain confined to maintaining defence capability within Japan itself and not beyond.

    If the French were to decide to send their military to evacuate French nations from Haiti, for example, no one probably would have raised a hue and cry but Japan’s case is different. Prime Minister Kan tried testing the waters by throwing a small stone but ended up stirring a tsunami and hastened to withdraw his remarks. Historical sensitivities apart, South Korea may not have any real fear from Kan’s remarks as Japan would be least interested in getting embroiled in the event of a crisis erupting in the Korean Peninsula. Other countries in the region may well also be making their own contingency plans if a crisis were to break out though they may not have made them public. Kan could probably have kept his plans within his party or close to his chest and not made them public. More experience and maturity will surely help avoid a repeat of such a gaffe.