While the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution to punish North Korea for its nuclear test May 25 was long awaited by Japan, swiftly following through on its key measure — nonmandatory inspection of North Korean cargo ships — may prove tricky for the tightly regulated Maritime Self-Defense Force.
To ensure the resolution, which includes additional financial sanctions, has an impact, Japan is expected to step up diplomatic efforts to secure cooperation from other countries, especially China, which has opposed tougher sanctions for ally Pyongyang.
Despite the prolonged talks and the failure to make cargo inspections mandatory as proposed by Japan and the United States, Japanese officials still appeared satisfied with the outcome.
“It’s a strong and harsh message to North Korea. Now the focus is on how each country will act (based on the resolution), even if there is a tough reaction from North Korea in response,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said Friday.
The Security Council resolution, adopted Friday in New York, “calls upon” U.N. member states to inspect all cargo to and from North Korea in their territories, including seaports and airports, if the concerned state has “information that provides reasonable grounds” to believe such cargo contains nuclear and missile-related items.
It also calls for member states to inspect suspicious North Korean-related vessels — with the consent of the flag state — on the high seas.
But Japan may find it difficult to do that without penning new legislation.
“The measure is not a so-called obligation but a request . . . (but) the Japanese government has to respond to such a request,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said earlier, expressing the government’s willingness to consider new legislation.
The Self-Defense Forces can inspect cargo on the high seas under certain laws in situations where the government believes an armed attack will become imminent or develop into a direct armed attack against Japan if left unaddressed.
But many believe that North Korea’s second nuclear test May 25 is unlikely to be defined as posing such a threat.
The SDF’s activities, especially in regard to overseas deployments, are a sensitive issue in light of the war-renouncing Constitution.
Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada stressed Friday that the SDF is not thinking to “go outside actively” and that the inspections should be left mainly to the Japan Coast Guard.
The Japan Coast Guard can inspect vessels for purposes such as crime prevention and maritime security, but such activities should basically be conducted within Japan’s territorial waters.
As one option for the new legislation, which the government has started considering, the SDF may be allowed to inspect vessels carrying nuclear and missile-related items, without acknowledgment that circumstances in the vicinity of Japan pose a serious threat to national peace and security.
Also behind the move is sentiment among some ruling Liberal Democratic Party legislators that not engaging in the inspections would compromise Japan’s international standing, given that it tried to spearhead tougher sanctions during the U.N. negotiations.
But with the Diet extension due to end July 28, a Defense Ministry source said it will not be easy to enact the needed legislation until later in the year.
Among the stumbling blocks are the divided Diet, where the opposition parties control the Upper House, and a pivotal House of Representatives election, which must take place by fall but that Prime Minister Taro Aso can call at any time.
While Democratic Party of Japan President Yukio Hatoyama said Thursday that he “basically supports” the idea of cargo inspections on the high seas, that view is apparently not being shared by members of his party. Azuma Koshiishi, leader of the DPJ’s Upper House caucus, said new legislation is “out of the question.”
Meanwhile, to make sure the resolution has an impact, Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka is considering visiting China later in the month, a government source said Thursday.
“How serious China is on the issue will be key. If we can’t make this something painful for North Korea, it will be just the same as the past,” the source said.
But a different government source admitted that a UNSC resolution has its limits because there is no system under international law to punish member states that do not comply with it.
“Some say that discussions on whether to use ‘call upon’ or ‘decide’ — which implies an obligation — in the text of a resolution is meaningless, although it could be said to have a political implication,” the source said.
“Even if a new sanctions resolution is adopted, a country may not comply with it, and then we may have to craft another resolution for that country and so on. To be frank, there are limitations,” he said.
More sanctions soon
The government might impose more sanctions on North Korea, including a total trade ban, as early as Tuesday, sources said Saturday.
The Cabinet is expected to approve the measures, including a total ban on both imports from and exports to the communist nation, as a followup to the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted Friday in order to impose a broader range of sanctions on Pyongyang.
Since Japan has already banned imports, banning exports isn’t expected to have a major economic impact given the low trade value. But Tokyo is hoping the measure will show the North it is taking a tough stance on its nuclear antics, the sources said.
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