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Japanese Vulnerabilities increases following North Korea’s actions

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 23, 2009

    The delicately maintained fragile peace in Northeast Asia received a severe jolt when North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test on May 25, 2009, followed by the test launch of four short-range missiles. Earlier on April 5, North Korea had launched a long-range rocket, which drew condemnation from the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the form of a strong presidential statement. Pyongyang claimed that the May 25 test helped it to solve “scientific and technological problems arising in further increasing the power of nuclear weapons and steadily developing nuclear weapons.” While declaring the recent test a ‘success’, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported it “as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defence in every way as requested by its scientists and technicians”. In its report, the KCNA further claimed that “the successful nuclear test is greatly inspiring the army and people of the DPRK---.”

    The test defied UNSC Resolution 1718, which was issued after the North’s October 2006 nuclear explosion. Resolution 1718 demanded that Pyongyang refrain from conducting additional nuclear tests. It further prohibited the movement in or out of North Korea of such weapons and components.

    Pyongyang’s nuclear explosion is perceived to be the result of Kim Jong-Il’s frustration over Washington’s reluctance to normalize bilateral ties and provide assurance that it is not seeking or striving for regime change. The May 25 nuclear test also reveals the overwhelming dominance of North Korea’s ‘military-first’ principle. At the same time, it is posing a strong challenge to Obama administration in order to win concessions and register firmness. Hardliners in Pyongyang are thus sending a strong signal in advance of future US-North Korea possible bilateral talks, recently proposed by US Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth during his visit to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul. Sowing discord among the other Six-Party Talk members appears to be another significant objective of the North. The reluctance of Russia and China in taking harsh action against the North, despite demands from the other Six-Party Talks members, is evident enough in this context. The test is also being used by the North to impress upon both its people as well as international observers that the regime is still very much in control, despite lingering concerns over Kim Jong Il’s deteriorating health.

    North Korea’s May 25 nuclear explosion is bound to have a significant impact on international security, and particularly that of Asia. The test drew near universal disapproval. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said he was “deeply worried” by such an occurrence. While declaring Pyongyang’s actions as a reckless challenge warranting actions from the international community, Barrack Obama declared that the US and its allies would “stand up” to North Korea as well as seek the cooperation of Russia and China. Obama has also promised to press for “concrete measures to curtail North Korea” and vowed an “unequivocal commitment” to the defence of Japan and South Korea in the likely situation of a conflict in the Peninsula.

    EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, denounced the test as a flagrant violation of UNSC resolutions. Solana stated that such irresponsible acts by North Korea warrant a firm response by the international community. Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, called the test a “flagrant breach of its international obligations” and a violation of UN sanctions. South Korea called the test a threat to international peace. While condemning the North Korean test and emphasizing India’s anti-nuclear proliferation stance, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said, “It’s a matter of serious concern not only to India, but to the world.”

    As before, both China and Russia initially indicated reluctance in pushing the North to change course. Being the North’s biggest trading partner, China obviously was in a tight spot in taking harsh steps against it. Yet, China stated that it was “resolutely opposed” to the test. As far as Russia is concerned, while claiming Pyongyang’s nuclear test as a threat to regional stability, Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, said that the international community would have to face down the challenges posed in making the NPT a success. On the surface, at present, both China and Russia appear to support stiffer penalties, but their real intentions remain shrouded in mystery.

    The reaction from Japan has been the strongest. Being the only victim of a nuclear attack, the alarm Japan has expressed at a nuclear state in its neighbourhood seems to be quite understandable. Though Japan requested the Security Council to adopt a new tougher resolution than 1718, negotiations encountered a deadlock owing to the reluctance of Russia and China to endorse Japan’s stand. Ultimately, Japan had to compromise by accepting the Chinese (and later, the US) proposal of issuing a strong Presidential Statement.

    Japan took the position that North Korea’s nuclear test was a clear violation of a deal that the latter had agreed to. In New York, Yukio Takasu, Japan’s ambassador to the UN, met with the ambassador of Russia, who is presently the Security Council President and requested for an emergency meeting of the Council. Considering Pyongyang’s action as an “intolerable act that poses a significant threat to the national security of Japan as well as the peace and safety of the northeast Asian region and the entire international community,” Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso pointed out that it was a serious challenge to the NPT regime. Japan urged North Korea to take concrete action with a view to resolving all outstanding bilateral issues. The necessity of cooperation with the US and the international community at the UN Security Council to resolve the issue was also stressed by the Japanese government.

    In the meantime, President Obama has reassured allies such as Japan and South Korea that the US remains committed to the maintenance of peace and security in Northeast Asia. Both Japan and the US also jointly drafted a new UN resolution which contains additional elements going beyond previous sanctions. Although initially both Japan and the US were in favour of having a resolution that includes a provision allowing the use of force to conduct cargo inspections of North Korean vessels suspected to be shipping illegal items, China and Russia opposed the idea. Nevertheless, on June 12, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1874 to slap tougher sanctions on the North to cripple its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Although the new Resolution does not authorize the use of force, it calls on UN member states to expand sanctions imposed after the North’s nuclear test in October 2006. It also calls for tougher inspections of cargo suspected of containing banned missile-and nuclear related items, a tighter arms embargo and new targeted financial curbs to choke off revenue for the nuclear and missile sectors. Resolution 1874 further “demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology” and abandon all nuclear weapons and programmes “in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

    People in Japan are outraged at North Korea’s nuclear test. Hibakushas or victims of nuclear war are at the forefront of criticizing the North’s action. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership called the test ‘outrageous’. Okada Katsuya, the newly appointed secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has also echoed the government’s sentiments. The Japanese government is reportedly considering strengthening its unilateral sanctions against North Korea by including an all-out ban of Japanese exports to North Korea. However, such a step will not really have an impact on the North, since Japan accounts for only 0.1 per cent of Pyongyang’s overall trade.

    Japan feels frustrated that diplomacy and sanctions have elicited no effective results. So far, unilateral sanctions by the Japanese government have not proved as effective as expected. In the meantime, Pyongyang’s insistence on talking only to the US, and China being the only power in the region with sufficient influence over the North, have clearly limited Japan’s say in the matter. Japanese Foreign Minister Nakasone’s failure to convince Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to put pressure on Pyongyang clearly accentuated Japan’s frustration.

    North Korean’s actions have led to another significant development within Japan. Despite being a pacifist state for more than five decades, in the face of the threat from North Korea’s nuclear programme, Japan today has begun confronting a topic long off-limits: acquiring atomic weapons of its own. In fact, some members of the LDP have stated that it is time for Japan to bolster its defence network and consider pre-emptive strikes on North Korean WMD and military-related assets. In fact, the LDP’s National Defence Division subcommittee has proposed the incorporation of the option of pre-emptive strikes in Japan’s new National Defence Guidelines, to be issued at the end of this year. General Nakatani, the present chairman of the LDP Research Commission on Security, has also emphasized on the necessity for Japan to have the capability to conduct preemptive strikes possibly including the launching of cruise missiles from navy ships. Although the option of preemptive strikes has been discussed fiercely over the years, particularly among the hawkish groups, Pyongyang’s long-range missile test in April followed by the nuclear test in May have clearly enhanced support for such an option.

    Japanese conservatives have begun to put pressure on the government to adopt a more robust Japanese security posture and plead that Japan should keep its nuclear option open. Toshio Tamogami, a former Japanese air force chief has said that since Pyongyang will not cease testing missiles until it develops a missile to reach the US, which would definitely elevate the threat factor in the region, Japan should seek to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Tamagomi’s nonconformist message, although still a minority view, demonstrates new Japanese thinking in some quarters.

    Though Japan hopes to depend on an US military response in the event of an attack from North Korea, it still would not like to neglect its own security. Constitutional constraints apart, Japan might revisit its security options and try to maintain certain level of deterrence, which is endorsed by the people of the country.