Four topics dominated Japan’s non-Twitter news cycle for the last quarter of 2017. Two involved sports: the signing of 23-year-old baseball superstar Shohei Otani to play for the Los Angeles Angels of the American League; and the resignation of sumo grand champion Harumafuji after assaulting a younger wrestler, which set off a three-way power struggle between headstrong stablemaster Takanohana, the Japan Sumo Association and a group of Mongolian wrestlers who currently dominate the sport.
The third was the Dec. 19 public debut of Xiang Xiang, the female giant panda cub born June 12 at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo.
Then there was the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Kim Jong Un, dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), whose push for development of thermonuclear devices and long-range missiles to deliver them have raised tensions in East Asia to the highest levels in decades.
Advising its readers to “start preparing!” Shukan Gendai (Jan. 6-13) ran a “detailed simulation” of a North Korean attack on Japan, which, in something of an understatement, warned would raise the levels of panic many times more than when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011.
Given the limited scale of North Korea’s arsenal, military affairs journalist Buntaro Kuroi is convinced that it would most likely target Tokyo with a nuclear weapon out of a “strategy of desperation.” So if war appears imminent, he advises, “one should get as far away from Tokyo as possible and be prepared to stay away until the conflict is over.”
Takashi Onizuka, former director of the Ground Self-Defense Force school of chemistry, raises North Korea’s possible use of a bomb that emits a burst of electromagnetic radiation that can damage or destroy electronic devices in a manner akin to being struck by a bolt of lightning. Mobile telephones, televisions, computers, etc., within a diameter of several hundred kilometers would be rendered useless, as would trains, passenger cars and aircraft. Bank ATMs would cease operation and securities trading come to a dead stop.
Should it come to the worst-case scenario, the magazine advises families to agree in advance on an emergency meeting spot. Since credit cards won’t work, a certain amount of cash should be squirreled away for such an eventuality.
The possibility of war obviously calls for wide-ranging civil defense measures, which Shukan Gendai discusses with Seoul-based journalist Kim Kyong-Chol.
“Japan maintains full readiness against natural disasters such as earthquakes or typhoons; but why are its measures to deal with an attack by North Korea so paltry?” Kim asks rhetorically. “People in South Korea find this incomprehensible.”
Japan, lulled into a state of heiwa-boke (complacency over peace) by the U.S. nuclear umbrella and over 70 years of peace, needs to expedite preparations.
If you’re looking for reassurances that the trade embargo and other restrictions imposed on North Korea are likely to bring that country back to the negotiating table, be prepared for a long wait. Writing in Shukan Shincho (Jan. 4-11), Katsuhisa Furukawa, a member of the U.N. Security Council’s committee entrusted with monitoring the restrictions, claims the measures in force are full of holes — and that his own country stands out as one of the worst offenders.
The North Koreans may not be flaunting the contraband they’re obtaining from abroad, but aren’t making any effort to conceal it either. A Fuji TV news crew in Pyongyang was astonished to find that the shelves of a supermarket were not only well-stocked with imported merchandise, but among them were a considerable number of products from Japan. The camera zoomed in on the labels to show rice wine from Kobe and soy sauce from Iwate, along with fruit juice and cooking oil, all produced in Japan. The dates on the labels indicated production the previous month. It was on Sept. 11 that the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2375 — said to be the “most stringent yet.”
Last July, a U.K.-based website named NK Pro displayed scenes from a Pyongyang department store stocked with an impressive array of deluxe goods from Europe, North America and Japan, including cosmetics, alcoholic beverages, watches, shoes, musical instruments and flat-screen TVs, among others.
Furukawa quotes a CIA source as saying Japan is full of North Korea sympathizers, who can exploit loopholes in a commercial law that went into effect in 2010. Ships flying the flag of one nation (Myanmar) but operated by another (Taiwan) easily manage to slip through the net. Another regulation ostensibly aimed at keeping North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports, but which recognizes exceptions on “emergency” or “humanitarian” grounds, is regularly abused. And, Furukawa complains bitterly, Japan continues its slipshod enforcement of toothless laws.
Is the momentum building toward imminent disaster? At least one magazine, Shukan Post (Jan. 1-5 ), has a surprise up its sleeve. According to Hidenori Itagaki, an international political commentator said to have close connections to high government officials, beginning from May of last year, officials from U.S. and North Korea held secret meetings in Norway on at least eight occasions.
“During 2018, there’s the possibility of moves toward a true peace between the two countries,” Itagaki remarks.
The turning point will be America’s 2018 mid-term congressional elections, which in President Donald Trump’s view offers an opportunity to boost his standing with U.S. voters.
“The word is that just before or after the Independence Day holiday on July 4, he’ll announce plans for a personal visit to Pyongyang, where he’ll hold a summit meeting with Kim,” Itagaki relates. “If he can pull it off, it will be a world-shattering event.”
For better or worse, 2018 is shaping up to be a year of living dangerously.