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In recent years, we have seen active debate on Japan’s sanctions-based diplomacy. Discussions focused on the justifications for and effects of sanctions, as well as changes in the balance of power resulting from the lifting of such measures. The lifting of sanctions against North Korea Dec. 14 renewed the debate.

Japan implemented four sanctions following North Korea’s test-firing of a Taepodong missile over Japan August 1998. The measures consisted of a freeze on contributions to a multinational consortium for providing nuclear-power reactors to North Korea, suspension of charter flights, a ban on food aid and suspension of bilateral diplomatic normalization talks. The action might have appeared drastic, but experts doubted the effectiveness of the sanctions.

The freeze on Japanese contributions to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization should not have been used to punish Pyongyang for the missile test. KEDO was designed to halt North Korea’s nuclear-arms development in exchange for nuclear reactors. Refusal to finance KEDO could have been construed as implicit approval of North Korea’s nuclear-arms development. Under U.S. and South Korean pressure, Japan was forced to lift the freeze less than two months after announcing it.

Why did Japan implement the freeze, which it had to call off so soon? There is speculation that anti-Pyongyang hardliners in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party demanded the freeze. These lawmakers, who are unwilling to give a single yen to North Korea for any reason, apparently do not realize they are driven by revenge against North Korea. The government action was also prompted by the Japanese public’s extreme anger after the missile test.

There are indications that anti-Pyongyang sentiment was fanned in large part by politicians. The Rodong-1 missile, which North Korea successfully tested in the Sea of Japan in 1993, was capable of hitting most of Japan. The government failed to tell the public how much more of a military threat North Korea posed to Japan after the Taepodong test, and some lawmakers stirred a public outcry over North Korea’s allegedly increasing threat.

Some speculate that the politicians successfully used the missile issue to foster an abnormal anti-Pyongyang sentiment in Japan in order to strengthen national defense. A South Korean expert on security told me that North Korea greatly helped Japan strengthen its national defense. “Now it is up to Japan to help North Korea,” he joked.

The suspension of charter flights harmed both Japan and North Korea, but the damage was less than fatal. A suprapartisan Japanese Diet delegation, led by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, took the first charter flight after the lifting of the freeze to travel to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leaders. This gives the impression that Japan lifted the freeze for its own convenience.

After Japan announced the freeze on food aid, China, the U.S. and South Korea continued their own food and fertilizer aid to North Korea, offsetting the Japanese freeze. This also gave the impression that Japan alone refused to help food-short North Korea. Some members of the U.S. Congress criticized Japan for linking humanitarian issues with politics. Others said the action was strange since Japan was perceived to have lots of food.

Humanitarian aid is given to people in distress, regardless of reasons or political background. There is a growing opinion among human-rights and humanitarian aid groups that such aid should not be linked with politics.

Although the ban on food aid to North Korea was removed, the government is required to brief LDP officials before implementing such aid. This shows the LDP’s strong distrust of North Korea.

The most delicate issue was the suspension of diplomatic normalization talks. Under the sanction, Japan was not to seek the resumption of such talks. A high-ranking Foreign Ministry source said it was doubtful that the measure could be called a sanction. North Korea was perceived to be less enthusiastic than Japan about diplomatic normalization.

If North Korea had been more eager about diplomatic normalization, it would have used more conciliatory tactics when dealing with the alleged abduction of a dozen Japanese by North Korean agents. Once, North Korea cut short bilateral talks as soon as Japan brought up the abduction issue. This shows North Korea was unenthusiastic about talks with Japan.

There are strong signs that North Korea made negotiations with the U.S. a priority, believing that once Washington reaches agreement with Pyongyang, Tokyo would follow suit. And in fact, when the U.S. began to explore ways of improving relations with North Korea after Pyongyang agreed not to conduct any more Taepodong missile tests while it continues negotiations with Washington, Japan took similar steps. This was apparently part of North Korea’s well-calculated plan.

When the image of “strong Japan” was fostered with the implementation of the four sanctions, was this purely for domestic consumption? Which has a stronger negotiating position, Japan or North Korea? Answers to these questions will emerge when the two countries begin negotiations.

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