Japan's North Korea policy

Axel Berkofsky: Japan's North Korea policy: Trends, controversies and impact on Japan's overall defence and security policy, AIES Studien 2/2011, ISSN 2222-9841.

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24.05.2011 / Vorige / Nächste Publikation


Bilateral Japanese-North Korean negotiations aimed at creating the basis for the establishment of diplomatic relations remain suspended since 2008 and it can be excluded that Tokyo and Pyongyang will resume bilateral negotiations in any time soon. Pyongyang's recent missile and nuclear tests, its sinking of a South Korean corvette (March 2010) and the bombardment of South Korean territory (November 2010) confirmed Tokyo's policymakers that North Korea's economic and political engagement will remain at the very bottom of its North Korea policy agenda.

Unless there is a radical policy shift in Pyongyang, i.e. a resumption of the disablement and dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear program and a decision to re-investigate the so-called "abduction issue" (as promised by Pyongyang in 2008), bilateral Japanese - North Korean exchanges of any kind can be as good as excluded in 2011 and possibly beyond that. To be sure, Tokyo's policymakers will continue to be held hostage by the country's (increasingly numerous) North Korea hardliners, parts of the media not to consider any form of political or economic engagement until Pyongyang demonstrates willingness to re-investigate the "abduction issue". Up to 35 Japanese citizens, Tokyo claims, were abducted to North Korea (from Japan and Europe) in the 1970s and 1980s and forced to work amongst others as Japanese language "instructors" teaching Japanese language in North Korea to North Korean secret service agents. While Japan continues to request reliable (as opposed to bogus) information on what exactly happened to the Japanese abductees in North Korean captivity, Pyongyang continues to consider the issue to be settled after it officially apologized for the kidnappings back in 2002.

As will be shown below, North Korea has become Tokyo's what the literature refers to as "catch-all" or "proxy-threats" serving to justify and implement the upgrade of Japanese defence and military capabilities over recent years. To be sure Japan's new defence guidelines, the December 2010 so-called "National Defence Program Guidelin (NDPG)" e.g. leave no doubt that the perceived threat posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programs has motivated Japan's defence planners to upgrade the country's coast guard and missile defence capabilities and equipment. While critics inside and outside of Japan argue that Tokyo has exploited the perceived threat from North Korea to boost up Japan's defence capabilities beyond the level necessary to defend Japanese territory, Tokyo’s defence planners argue that the changes on Japan's defence and security policy agenda are above all a reaction to Pyongyang's military provocations and ambitions to become a ‘fully-fledged’ nuclear state by 2012.

As will be elaborated below, Tokyo's insistence to put the ‘abduction issue’ on the agenda of the 6-Party Talks had consequences: Pyongyang's attitude, rhetoric and policies towards Tokyo became increasingly antagonistic leading to accusations that Japan’s insistence to deal with an issue not related to the envisioned (but failing) North Korean denuclearization contributed significantly to the suspension of the multilateral talks hosted by Beijing since 2003. Eventually Tokyo became a very marginal and indeed irrelevant actor in the framework of the 6-Party Talks and was increasingly perceived as such not only by North Korea but also the US, China and South Korea.


Professor Axel Berkofsky is Gianni Mazzocchi Fellow at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Milan-based Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).