Judging responses to the North Korean threat

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has highlighted North Korea’s security threat as a “national crisis” in the campaign for Sunday’s general election and asked for voters’ fresh mandate for his administration to deal with the threat on a solid footing. Voters should carefully assess the administration’s foreign and defense policies, including its emphasis on pressure to get Pyongyang to give up its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons programs and its full support of U.S. President Donald Trump’s position that all options — including military — are on the table in dealing with the repeated provocations by the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un.

Citing rapid changes in the nation’s security environment, chiefly the growing threat from North Korea and China’s assertive maritime postures, the Abe administration changed the government’s long-standing interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution and had the security legislation enacted two years ago, lifting the self-imposed ban on Japan engaging in collective self-defense operation with its allies under certain conditions and significantly expanding the scope of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions. The legislation paved the way for closer defense cooperation between Japan and the United States. Voters should think whether the legislation has indeed improved Japan’s national security and enhanced its deterrence, including against the threat posed by North Korea.

Abe’s ruling coalition maintains that the legislation contributed to beefing up the security alliance with the U.S. Government leaders say the tight cooperation with the U.S. in coping with North Korean would have been impossible had the security legislation not been enacted.

When the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition rammed the legislation through the Diet in 2015, public opinion was sharply divided — with opponents outnumbering supporters in one poll taken right after its enactment. But members of the then No. 1 opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which led the drive against the legislation, were split as they entered the current race for the Lower House election — with those running on the ticket of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s upstart Kibo no To (Party of Hope), after the DPJ’s successor Democratic Party effectively disbanded, reversing their position to pledge qualified support of the legislation. Several other parties, including the other DP splinter group, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, maintain their opposition to the legislation.

Abe made clear his full support of the Trump administration’s position on North Korea when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in late September — when it was widely reported in Tokyo that he would soon dissolve the Lower House for the snap election. He devoted about 80 percent of his speech on the North Korean problem — calling for pressure on, not dialogue with, Pyongyang. In a debate session with leaders of other parties on the eve of the campaign, Abe stressed that Japan engaged in dialogue and made promises with North Korea — only to be betrayed twice. What’s at stake in the election, he says, is how to defend people’s lives against the North Korean threat. The prime minister calls for increasing pressure to change North Korea’s policies. Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito, charges that the helm of government cannot be put in the hands of opposition parties that are not ready to confront the “real threat” from North Korea.

A national security threat tends to prompt the electorate to favor political stability at home. Emphasizing the North Korean threat in the campaign may have the effect of prodding people to vote for the governing parties. But rather than be overwhelmed by the crisis, voters should strive to make a sober assessment of the government’s approach to the problem and the policy advocated by each of the parties.

What should be considered is whether the Abe administration’s rejection of any dialogue with North Korea is the right approach to resolving the crisis over its nuclear weapons and missile programs. True, dialogue and engagement with the North in the past have not stopped its military ambitions. But adding pressure alone, including international economic sanctions, have not persuaded Pyongyang to halt its escalating nuclear and missile development programs. In fact, Pyongyang upped the ante this summer by firing two intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and conducting a sixth nuclear weapon test. Abe endorses Trump’s pursuit of “all options,” but U.S. military action against North Korea could have grave consequences for its allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. The prime minister says Japan, under its solid alliance with the U.S., will explore every means to tighten pressure on North Korea. Voters should think whether that should be the only option for Japan to take in the efforts to defuse the North Korean crisis.