Japan’s fevered reaction to North Korea’s recent missile tests should not surprise. It is yet another example of the emotional way that an otherwise admirable nation finds it hard to separate causes from effects.
In 1994, North Korea was just hours away from having its nuclear facilities bombed by the United States. The attack was averted at the last moment by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, visiting Pyongyang and hammering out an agreed framework to solve the nuclear dispute.
But almost from the start, the dominant conservatives in the U.S. Congress made it clear they opposed the agreement, especially its promise eventually to normalize relations with the U.S. Believing North Korea was on the point of economic and social collapse, they wanted a policy of confrontation and regime change. That policy was formally endorsed in January 2002 when U.S. President George W. Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil.”
Whether the North Korean regime of those days deserved to be forcibly changed can be argued. But if a regime under threat tries to at least pretend that it can defend itself from attack, can anyone be surprised?
U.S. promises not to “invade” North Korea are meaningless when the real danger for Pyongyang remains, as in 1994, the threat of air attack. U.S. calls for North Korea to join in six-party talks to resolve the nuclear dispute are also fairly meaningless while Washington continues to refuse the bilateral talks needed — and promised — for the all-important normalization of relations. Without that normalization, Pyongyang has to assume it is still on the enemy list and could be attacked at any time. Without at least some pretense at nuclear and rocket preparations, it appears vulnerable.
Little of this cause-and-effect reasoning has made any impression on Japan or its media. In talk show after talk show, editorial after editorial, North Korea’s recent demonstration of its retaliatory rocket power has been denounced as ultimate evil. Even the once fairly neutral NHK, the national broadcaster, has set out determinedly to denounce North Korea for dangerous brinkmanship.
Even progressives are — using that favorite word of the conservatives and the hawks — kitchiri, or sternly decisive — to describe the anti-Pyongyang policies they want Tokyo to take. Not just the hawkish Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, but many other more moderate voices have called for U.S.-nuclear-protected Japan to develop its own first-strike ability against nonnuclear-protected North Korea. Nowhere have I come across any hint in this otherwise intelligent nation that there may be valid reasons for North Korea’s missile testing.
True, our crusading Western moralists also have problems in unraveling causes and effects. They have yet to realize that if the West kills Islamists, the Islamists will want to kill Westerners in return. But over North Korea at least the disconnect is not quite as blatantly perverse as in Japan. A growing body of U.S. opinion now realizes that opening bilateral talks with Pyongyang to normalize relations is the key to resolving the so-called nuclear crisis.
Meanwhile in Japan, North Korea’s missile tests are seen as an open invitation to unleash the military hawks with their expensive armament plans and hardline policies. The tit-for-tat confrontation ratchet moves up yet another notch.
Japan’s continuing abductee dispute with Pyongyang compounds the damage. North Korea’s bad behavior of the ’70s and ’80s over abductions and its continued bad behavior today on other questions may or may not have its reasons. North Korea was after all, and still is, technically in a state of war with the U.S. and its U.N. allies. It has also suffered much bad behavior from its former enemy in South Korea.
But on the abduction issue what is relevant is that it has apologized and, when treated politely, is willing to make concessions like returning some abductees. Tokyo, with highly emotional media and public-opinion support, is doing all it can to make sure that Pyongyang will not want to make any more concessions. Hawks on both sides are delighted.
Much is being made of Pyongyang’s unwillingness to provide full details of its former abduction program. Some say up to 100 Japanese citizens may have been taken. But compare this with Tokyo’s continuing reluctance to admit the wartime abduction and abuse of 40,000 Chinese slave laborers, not to mention conscripting hundreds of thousands of Koreans for hard labor in Japan more than 60 years ago. Japan, better than any other country, should realize that no nation likes to have its dirty linen aired.
Nor is it just a problem of Japan being unable to understand causes. It seems to have had as much trouble realizing the possible effects of its anti-North Korea policies.
South Korea’s significant calls for Japan to cool its abductee and missile-test indignations were hardly noticed; yet clearly Seoul is in no mood to have its “Look North” policies jeopardized by Tokyo’s anti-North fixation. Tokyo pretended not even to hear Seoul’s extraordinary warnings about the fixation being used as an excuse for revived Japanese militarism.
Tokyo can ignore Beijing’s warnings, claiming it does not have to listen to communists. But when your former anticommunist friends accuse you of misbehavior you should listen, attentively.
Worse, few in Japan seem even to realize that one result of all this carry-on could be to drive Seoul further into an anti-Japan alliance with Beijing.
A researcher with the Mitsui Bussan Strategic Research Institute, Kim Midoku, writing in Sekai Shuho, has recently shown in detail the extent of South Korea’s drift away from Japan and toward China on economic and cultural issues. The disputes with Tokyo over visits to Yasukuni Shrine and ownership of the Takeshima islets add a political dimension. A clash over North Korea policy could well be the last straw pushing South Korea into China’s embrace. The damage to Japan’s interests would be enormous.
Reports that even Washington wants Tokyo to back off somewhat over Yasukuni and other issues irritating Seoul are symptomatic. The U.S. at least realizes that its alliance with a Japan increasingly isolated in Asia would do little to further its own interests. Tokyo has yet to get even that far in its reasoning.
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