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Aside from U.N., Japan has few options against launch

by Masami Ito and Jun Hongo

Second of two parts

North Korea’s launch of what it claims will be a rocket carrying a satellite into space will draw international criticism, but experts said the outrage may not be strong enough to win Japan another U.N. resolution or tougher economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Japan quickly condemned North Korea when it announced plans earlier this month to send a communications satellite into space sometime between April 4 and 8. The rocket is expected to fly over Japan and land in the Pacific Ocean.

After the announcement, Prime Minister Taro Aso said the launch would be a violation of United Nations resolution 1718 and he would demand North Korea abandon the plan.

While Japan’s views are shared by South Korea and the United States, Russia and China have been reluctant to support them and have hinted that a satellite mission should not result in such a strong reprisal.

Hajime Izumi, a professor of Korean affairs at the University of Shizuoka, said he was not surprised.

“I don’t think it is possible to create a new U.N. resolution — Russia and China won’t be in on it,” Izumi said. “I believe the issue is how strongly Japan will call for a complete and stricter implementation of resolution 1718.”

The U.N. resolution, adopted in October 2006 after Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon, stipulates that North Korea should abandon all missile development activities and nuclear weapons. It also calls on U.N. members to impose a wide range of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Japan’s position is that the resolution applies even to a rocket carrying a satellite because they are technically identical to ballistic missiles.

“Whether it is a satellite or something else, Japan considers the action a clear violation of U.N. resolution 1718,” Aso told reporters Thursday evening.

“We must push for various things, including the possibility of a (further) U.N. resolution and take a unified course with international society to criticize” the launch, he said.

If the U.N. Security Council settles on meting out a simple press statement condemning the launch, Japan would contemplate setting up tougher bilateral sanctions against Pyongyang.

Foreign Ministry officials have pointed out that Japan’s sanctions against North Korea, which include a ban on North Korean-flagged ships from entering Japanese ports and imports all North Korean goods, will need to be extended before April 13 anyway.

A Liberal Democratic Party team has outlined additional sanctions, including a complete ban on Japanese exports to North Korea and tighter regulations against financial remittances to the hermit state.

But Masao Okonogi, a professor of political science at Keio University, warned that overreacting could isolate Japan and raise higher hurdles for holding bilateral talks on the abduction issue.

“It’s important that the government not get emotional. It needs to make a calm judgment” after the launch, Okonogi said last week.

North Korea’s missile tests, including a Taepodong-2 that malfunctioned and crashed in the Sea of Japan in 2006, have raised public concerns about safety.

In an unusual step, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada on Friday ordered the Self-Defense Forces to shoot down any parts of the rocket that may fall on Japanese territory.

While Okonogi acknowledged it is impossible to rule out the chance of debris hitting Japan, he also said Tokyo should avoid getting involved in a war of words or attempts to make a mountain out of a molehill.

“North Korea’s missiles are not developed as offensive weapons,” the expert on Korean issues reckoned. “They are built to be a deterrent. There is no need to react excessively.”

Even if debris does hit Japan, a full-fledged conflict would not only be improbable, but irrational, Okonogi said.

Critics, including Izumi, however, urged Japan to impose more sanctions, although he acknowledged they have little impact.

“Japan should impose further sanctions as an expression of anger over the launch, but (the government) shouldn’t lie and make it seem effective, because they won’t have any effect,” Izumi said.

Japan does little trade with Pyongyang and “sanctions would only actually work when countries like South Korea or China that send over a lot of stuff stop doing so,” he said.

The launch will nevertheless complicate an already intricate situation that is interweaving nuclear issues with international abductions and succession issues in the hermit state.

Izumi said the rocket launch won’t have much of an impact on Japanese-North Korean relations because there are no diplomatic ties.

“If something was moving forward, it could stop, or something good could turn bad. But something that is already bad won’t change,” Izumi said.

“There has been no improvement on the abductee issue and ties have already worsened, so nothing will stop or change,” he said.

One bright spot in diplomacy was achieved last summer by then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda when the North agreed to set up a committee to reinvestigate the abductions of Japanese in return for Japan lifting its sanctions on chartered flights. The deal even allowed the entry of North Korean nationals into Japan to resume once the probes began.

But that all fell through with Fukuda’s abrupt resignation in September. And Aso isn’t faring any better.

“North Korea obviously knows that people in Japan are saying the Aso administration could collapse at any time,” Izumi said. “Until Japan’s political situation is stabilized, I don’t think we can count on North Korea making any moves.”