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How Japan could respond to the North Korean threat

Act with other like-minded nations to open up an 'escape' route for North Korea

by and

It is patently clear that, should the world’s leading nations, including the United States, China and Russia, fail to agree to make North Korea abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, there would emerge a grave threat to international peace and security.

In so far as this crisis leads to further proliferation of nuclear weapons and raises the possibility of accidental nuclear wars, it is an international crisis of overriding importance, possibly equaling the rearmament of Germany in the 1930s, which eventually led to World War II.

Situated in the neighborhood of North Korea, Japan must muster courage and wisdom, and build a national consensus on how to deal with this crisis. Japan cannot afford to slumber in pseudo-peace while leaving this issue for other nations to resolve.

Military solutions by surgical operations would inevitably pose catastrophic risks to Japan. International pressures on North Korea alone, even if maximized by way of enhanced U.N. resolutions, cannot bring about the needed change of heart by North Korean leader Kim Jon Un. Pressures are absolutely necessary but not sufficient to achieve our purpose.

In this connection, we believe that Japan can make far more contributions than the average Japanese thinks. Japan is in a position to offer sufficient conditions by way of diplomatic initiatives. In concrete terms, now that a certain degree of pressure mechanism has been put in place by the latest enhanced U.N. resolution, the time has come for Japan to join forces with like-minded nations to open up an “escape” route for North Korea.

Japan could urge North Korea to accept a nuclear-free zone in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula and Japan, in return for the assurance of its survival and economic development. Should this idea happily become a reality, we wish that the Japanese people would renounce the possession of nuclear weapons in a constitutional amendment.

Because of complicated international interests, it would naturally take a long time, possibly over five to 10 years, to realize this idea. And even if this nuclear-free zone is created, Japan will not be freed from tackling various problems for its future national security. In our view Japan is required to change its exclusively defense-oriented security policy, which it has consistently observed after the end of war, even though extended deterrence under the American “nuclear umbrella” continues to ensure Japan’s security. Presently Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are not equipped for counter-attacks on the origins of attacks on Japan. This is utterly unrealistic. People are aware that it is in practice impossible to shoot down all in-coming missiles. Even if technically possible, it would require an astronomical sum of defense spending.

Japan must quickly start efforts to build defense capabilities that would enable it to launch counter-attacks on the origins of attacks at much longer ranges than is possible today. If combined with the affirmation of Japan’s non-nuclear stance in the Constitution, a much wider national consensus could be obtained for the constitutional legality of the Self-Defense Forces by way of the revision of the second clause of Article 9.

Japan must break up the present deadlock in its relations with South Korea, China and Russia, and improve and stabilize its relations with these close neighbors, even if that would require a certain degree of compromise on Japan’s part.

As it becomes clearer that little hope can be placed on the international leadership of the U.S. under the unprincipled, and at times erratic, Trump presidency, Japan must promote better relations with these neighboring countries through its own self-reliant diplomatic efforts. Given past experience, there may be little that Japan could do to improve its relationship with South Korea. But Japan could come up with new efforts to seek progress in relations while deferring till later the solution of the knotty territorial issues with Russia and the Senkaku Islands issue with China.

The Japanese people, faced with this serious crisis, have begun to understand that more self-reliant efforts are required in Japan’s foreign and security policies, and that Japan should spend more on defense. The government should be more proactive in explaining the complexities of the problems. What needs to be understood, in particular, is that timely and appropriate compromises are necessary to create a virtuous circle in relations with our neighbors. The Japanese government must be courageous enough to change its diplomacy, which, in our frank assessment, has tended to be uncompromising. We are confident that the whole nation will support such a change, once the government makes up its mind.

Masamichi Hanabusa, a former ambassador to Italy, is emeritus chairman of the ESUJ, and Sadaaki Numata, a former ambassador to Canada, is chairman of the ESUJ. This article first appeared on the website of the English-Speaking Union of Japan.