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Abe to use North Korea rocket launch to promote constitutional change

by

Kyodo

North Korea’s launch Sunday of what it says was a satellite may increase public support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s more robust security policy and promote public debate about his calls for amending the Constitution, according to some experts.

Abe is expected to use what Japan and other countries see as a banned ballistic missile test, as well as Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test last month, to promote his diplomatic and domestic agenda in the run-up to the Upper House election this summer, they say.

“Prime Minister Abe can show his firm stance against North Korea and act as a strong leader, especially when he hosts a Group of Seven summit and leads his ruling coalition into the election,” said Park Jung Jin, an associate professor of international relations at Tsuda College in Tokyo.

Park was referring to the G-7 summit in May in Mie Prefecture, which will bring together the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

Military experts say ballistic missiles and the rockets used in satellite launches share similar technology, which critics suspect North Korea may use to develop nuclear-armed missiles capable striking as far away as the United States.

It is, however, unknown whether Pyongyang is yet able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to be fitted on a long-range ballistic missile.

The provocation came as Abe is stepping up calls to revise the Constitution, including war-renouncing Article 9. Last week, he called for changing the provision, citing a contradiction between the existence of the Self-Defense Forces and the document’s ban on Japan maintaining armed forces.

“The North Korean nuclear and missile issues could become a tailwind for Mr. Abe’s calls for amending the Constitution,” Park said.

Senior Japanese officials quickly condemned North Korea’s action, saying the launch was in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, which obliges North Korea not to conduct any launches using ballistic missile technology.

“This series of provocations in a short span of time gravely undermines the peace and stability of the region and the international community including Japan,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

While vowing to take measures to boost deterrence against North Korea’s provocation, Suga underlined the importance of a controversial security law that enables Japan to defend the United States and other friendly nations under armed attack in what is known as collective self-defense.

In an effort to deepen the national debate about amending the Constitution, Abe has said he will make this a major campaign issue for the Upper House election, which is likely to take place in July.

The Constitution, drafted under the U.S.-led Allied Occupation after World War II, has never been altered since its promulgation in November 1946. The second paragraph of Article 9, which Abe has targeted for change, states that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

A revision requires approval by at least two-thirds of the members in each house of the Diet, as well as a majority in a national referendum.

At present, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito have a two-thirds majority in the Lower House but only a simple majority in the Upper House.

A Kyodo News poll conducted Jan. 30 and 31 found that 37.5 percent of respondents were in favor of amending the Constitution after the Upper House election and 50.3 percent were against, suggesting voters are cautious about giving too much power to Abe.

Meanwhile, Japan, as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, is lobbying with the United States and South Korea, among other like-minded states, for the council to impose tough sanctions on North Korea over the Jan. 6 nuclear test and Sunday’s missile launch.

But they are likely to face Beijing’s opposition in imposing potentially damaging penalties on Pyongyang, such as halting oil exports, experts say, citing China’s strategic interest in ensuring stability in North Korea.

“China’s position will not be swayed by a specific North Korean event or the temporary mood of the moment,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank. “China feels insecure about a unified Korea that is allied with the United States with troops on its borders.”

Lee argued the biggest variable now is not China, but the United States.

“Washington has been avoiding negotiations with Pyongyang, outsourcing the task to Beijing. China sees it as unfair,” he said. “It’s time for Washington to show leadership in addressing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile issues.”