North Korea’s failed rocket launch last week once again put Japan in a tricky position over its policy toward the North, triggering concern that a stern posture will complicate efforts to move forward the stalled issue of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals.
“It is natural for hardline (views) to prevail in Japan, but if this hardline stance pushes through, Japan-North Korea negotiations will likely take a back seat,” said a diplomatic source knowledgeable about Japan-North Korea relations.
Tokyo, which does not maintain diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, is under domestic pressure to make headway over the abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
In their last round of bilateral talks in 2008, Japan and North Korea agreed that Pyongyang will reinvestigate what has happened to the victims, but this has yet to be carried out, according to Japanese officials.
Talk of further economic sanctions is coming to the fore given the implications of the latest rocket launch. Japan and other nations view the launch as a long-range ballistic missile test in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration between Japan and North Korea.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura has stated that unilateral sanctions are being considered.
Japan has imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea since July 2006 after a long-range missile test by Pyongyang and currently has in place punitive measures that include banning all imports from and exports to North Korea.
Further measures could include tougher regulations on remittances, such as lowering the maximum amount of money that can be sent to North Korea by residents in Japan.
Families of Japanese abductees, voicing their anger over the attempted rocket launch, have urged the government to respond sternly through “effective sanctions.”
Political analyst Minoru Morita warned that the adoption of a hostile stance by Japan toward North Korea on the back of the hardline position of the abductees’ kin could isolate Japan from other nations, including China.
Morita indicated that the government’s current position could hamper efforts to find an overall solution for North Korean issues.
Japan maintains a policy of seeking a comprehensive resolution of the abduction, nuclear and missile issues, but all these concerns remain unresolved, as evidenced by North Korea’s latest rocket launch and South Korea’s recent warning that the North might be planning a third nuclear test.
“What Japan needs to do is to have its own diplomacy, its own pipeline (with the North), and steer away from its current hostile policy,” Morita said, adding that at the moment Japan relies heavily on the United States in addressing North Korean issues.
On the global front, Japan is part of the six-party talks along with the United States, China, Russia and the two Koreas. But the negotiations, aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, have been stalled since 2008.
A reality check shows there is only so much that Japan can do on its own to effectively put pressure on North Korea and that working with other six-party members and the broader international community is crucial, analysts say.
With the United States currently holding the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, Tokyo is hoping to secure Washington’s support for the passage of a resolution critical of North Korea’s rocket launch.
Japan also hopes to tap into the influence that China — another of the council’s five permanent members and Pyongyang’s strongest supporter — has over the North.
Ken Jinbo, an associate professor in Keio University’s Faculty of Policy Management, said that “Japan needs to seek an optimal way to engage China and isolate North Korea with various forums and frameworks,” citing the trilateral framework of Japan, China and South Korea as one such example.
Experts say that in addition to spurring a rethink of Japan’s North Korea policy, the rocket launch has also provided Tokyo with an opportunity to assess the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces in the southwest.
“Japan’s preparations for the missile launch turned out to be a good exercise for dispatching major SDF units” to the Sakishima island chain in Okinawa Prefecture, including Ishigaki and Miyako, said Jinbo, who specializes in Japanese foreign and security policies.
To brace for the rocket or any debris from it possibly falling on Japanese territory, the Defense Ministry deployed ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors mainly in Okinawa Prefecture, as well as Aegis-equipped destroyers carrying sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors in waters near Okinawa.
Jinbo said it could be inferred that Tokyo is trying to prepare people in Okinawa for a possible deployment of SDF personnel.
Japan’s defense program outline calls for strengthening the defense of the Nansei islet group, which includes the Sakishima chain, apparently with China in mind.