Public opinion, conservative media alter policy on North Korea

Kyodo

Kiichi Fujiwara, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo, says the abduction issue is “perhaps the first example in postwar Japan” in which public opinion has significantly altered the course of diplomacy.

The issue, over which Japan has become highly emotional and refuses to provide aid to North Korea via the six-party framework to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, has kept the two countries from achieving a breakthrough in working-group talks on normalizing diplomatic ties.

Speaking recently at New York’s Nippon Club Inc., Fujiwara said he views the abduction issue as a manifestation of an ongoing structural change in Japanese politics in which the media has come to play a key role in mobilizing conservative public opinion.

Despite his close relations with U.S. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s main concern was always the domestic agenda, according to Fujiwara. He said Koizumi had never been a blind follower of the United States, and he did not tell Washington when North Korea first contacted Japan about his prospective visit to the country.

“Koizumi judged that the public would eventually accept his visiting Pyongyang. . . . He didn’t tell Washington about the North Korean overture because he knew doing so would ruin this opportunity,” Fujiwara said.

But Washington was not the only potential spoiler, according to Fujiwara. One of his aides got hold of the information and generated a media campaign on the abduction issue, which turned out to be a ratings magnet for TV stations, he said.

“So by the time Koizumi visited North Korea in September 2002, there was already a consensus among the Japanese public on the abduction issue,” Fujiwara said.

“For Koizumi, the Pyongyang visit would have been his hallmark achievement. But it turned into something troublesome because of the growing public opinion, which totally crippled his major pet project,” he said.

According to Fujiwara, the emergence of conservative media has been another major factor changing the country’s political landscape in recent decades.

“Traditionally, Japan’s public opinion has been a dove. But supporters of national defense and traditional values came to be heavily represented in the media and the Internet during the 1990s.”

Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, was a noted hawk on North Korea issues. Abe was “totally inexperienced as a politician but was propped up to the premiership by populists,” Fujiwara said.

With Abe gone, Japan’s diplomacy finally appears to be returning to a “wiser, more professional path” under Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Fujiwara said. But at the same time, it has become essential for Fukuda to mobilize public opinion on his side to achieve his policy goals, he said.

Fujiwara said that under the so-called 1955 setup, in which the domestic political landscape was divided for decades into the powerful ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the powerless opposition Japan Socialist Party, public opinion had little impact on foreign policy because the government and the LDP maintained remarkably close ties with each other, practically functioning as one.

Fujiwara said these government-LDP collaborations were possible because of the so-called ex-bureaucrat lawmakers — who were a product of the postwar purge of senior officials from key ministry posts during the war.

The purge allowed a large number of young civil servants to leapfrog the bureaucratic hierarchy before turning to politics, enabling them to maintain strong contacts with their originating government offices while becoming influential politicians, he said.

The result was a near monopoly of information by the LDP and political stability unique to Japan, Fujiwara said.