LONDON — The report that North Korea had set off a second underground nuclear explosion made headlines here, but European eyes were on issues closer to home, including elections to the European Parliament and the state of the European economy.

The main focus in Britain has been on the crisis of public confidence in members of Parliament and the fiddling over their expenses. This is important in the context of maintaining a healthy democracy, but may appear petty and remote to readers in Japan, for whom the potential threat from North Korea must be particularly disturbing.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the North Korean threat is the lack of any consensus on how to respond. The North Korean regime has rebuffed direct overtures and declared it will not return to the six-party talks. It has also abrogated the armistice with South Korea and threatened to take retaliatory action if there is interference with North Korean shipping, which the United States and others suspect could transport nuclear arms or materials for export.

North Korean behavior has often been erratic. It is particularly unpredictable at the moment perhaps because of doubts about Kim Jong Il’s health and a possible power struggle over succession. North Korean leaders cannot be relied on to act logically or temperately.

The Chinese government is best placed to bring effective pressure on the regime in North Korea, but it seems reluctant to do more than express relatively mild criticism. It apparently fears that an implosion in North Korea would adversely affect Chinese regions adjacent to North Korea. It may also see the North Korean nuclear threat as a means of keeping tensions in the region at a level advantageous to Chinese leaders. They should bear in mind that the North Korean threat can only spur Japanese advocates of rearmament and the development of Japanese nuclear weapons.

For the present, Japan continues to rely on the American nuclear umbrella, but if the direct threat to Japan were to grow and doubts begin about the ability and willingness of the U.S. to defend Japan, a rightwing government in Japan might feel impelled to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear test-ban treaties. It could then develop quickly nuclear weapons of its own.

China does not currently pose a military threat to Japan, but the many observers who hoped that growth in the Chinese economy would lead to significant democratization have been disappointed. The Chinese Communist Party has not withered away; it remains in control of the country, and its dictatorship seems to be accepted by the bulk of the population, especially the growing middle class, even as it jettisons the more extremes of Maoist dogma to espouse policies aimed at increasing prosperity.

If China’s political system poses no direct threat to Japan, there are other dangers. The world economic depression has had a significant impact on China and has led to widespread unemployment.

So far, the social unrest that many feared has not occurred to any significant extent. But if discontent grows and force has to be used to repress the spread of trouble, some Chinese leaders might be tempted to whip up nationalist fervor against Japan or in support of forcible unification with Taiwan.

A greater threat arises from the possibility that economic friction between China and the U.S. could grow and harm political relations. Japanese industry is now so closely involved in the Chinese economy that economic friction between China and the U.S. inevitably damages Japanese economic interests.

While the Chinese authorities realize that selling down their holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds would be counterproductive, they also need to recognize the extent of protectionist pressures in the U.S. and demonstrate a willingness to play a constructive part in dealing with the world economic recession.

The Japanese government needs, as Japanese officials understand, to continue to exercise patient diplomacy to try to persuade Chinese leaders to do more to restrain the North Koreans from taking provocative steps and get them to return to the negotiating table. Japanese ill feeling over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals in years past inevitably makes it difficult for Japan to offer concessions to North Korea. There is probably little prospect for a repeat of the trips that former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made to Pyongyang, but the Japanese government is unfortunately weak and lacks imaginative and charismatic leaders.

It is sad that when the international situation is as serious as it is, Japan must hold a long-delayed general election and choose between two party leaders trained in the old factional politics of the Liberal Democratic Party. The fact that they are both grandsons of former prime ministers underlines the fact that politics in Japan has not fundamentally changed in half a century.

Personalities still seem to matter more in Japanese politics than policies. The personalities arising through the incestuous party system seem to lack the strength of character, imagination and charisma needed in the present crisis.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.