Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not have what a country geographically so close to and easily within range of North Korean short and medium-range missiles should have: a plan, let alone a North Korea strategy, that goes beyond announcing that Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests are an “unacceptable provocation”.
Instead of seeking to make a constructive contribution to the resolution of the crisis such as suggesting to resume anything resembling dialogue with Pyongyang, Abe reportedly limits himself to “coordinating’” policies on the phone with US President Trump in response to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests. Too bad, however, that (constructive) US North Korea policies, are in very short supply, i.e. completely non-existent. However, Abe is playing along and has decided to “Go ‘all in’ on his bets on the Trump administration to the point of a ‘Trump obsession’”, as the columnist William Pesek wrote in the Japan Times in September.
In fact, for Abe Trump can do no wrong. Be it Washington’s short-sighted withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his decision not to support the Paris Climate Agreement or his idea voiced during his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York to “totally destroy” North Korea, Abe is on board.
Then again, Abe’s own ideas are not any better either. In an article for the New York Times on September 17 the Prime Minister called on the international community NOT to talk to, let alone negotiate with, North Korea. “Prioritizing diplomacy and emphasising the importance of dialogue will not work with North Korea. History shows that concerted pressure by the entire international community is essential”. Except that history has not shown that at all in the case of North Korea, and a priori and categorically excluding talking to Pyongyang is a policy as short-sighted and unintelligent as it gets. Don’t get me wrong, Pyongyang and not Japan is testing missiles and nukes threatening peace and stability in East Asia, but excluding dialogue with a country that is sending one missile after the other over Japanese territory is the very definition of an ill-advised policy. Indeed, while Abe seems horrified about the prospect of being at the receiving end of Trump’s erratic and nonsensical tweets and abandoned by Washington, he in reality is risking being entrapped in one of Washington’s wars - the decades-old nightmare of Japanese foreign- and security-policy planners.
All of this, it seems, is acceptable “collateral damage” for Tokyo and in the meantime, the Japanese Prime Minister is exploiting the crisis to continue adopting fundamental changes in Japan’s security and defence policy agenda. Indeed, North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing has convinced the government - and the Japanese electorate, as the (very) pro-defence government (falsely) claims - that increasing this year’s Japanese defence budget was necessary and that the officially still “pacifist” Japan needs to resume thinking about buying and deploying offensive US-made missiles able to strike North Korean missile and nuclear sites. Abe and the like-minded nationalists around him want Japan to become a “normal” country and Pyongyang’s belligerency is the perfect excuse to become “normal” if “normal” stands for being able to go to war alongside Washington. To be sure, Japanese ballistic missile defence systems jointly developed with the US are already able to shoot down incoming North Korean missiles and it is maybe only a matter of time until Tokyo shoots down one of those missiles, which in turn would for Pyongyang be nothing short of a full-fledged “declaration of war”.
Abe and his fellow Japanese nationalists and defence hawks are getting ready and preparing for such a contingency, Koichi Nakano, Political Science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo fears. “If the government gets its way, it’s quite conceivable Abe will use this to try to revise the constitution to 'normalize' Japan's defence position. Abe and his government are trying to make the most of this crisis and the opportunity, almost, to try to make an argument (for) the push towards remilitarization”, he says in a recent newspaper interview. And such militarization, at least as far as Japanese ultra-nationalists and revisionists are concerned, should include nuclear armament as the ultimate form of military deterrence.
And here the discourse becomes absurd, i.e. we enter into “‘crazy talk” territory: Japanese defence hawks apparently do not have a problem with an officially pacifist country – pacifist due to the war-renouncing article 9 of the Japanese constitution which formally does not allow Japan to even maintain armed forces - developing and deploying nuclear weapons for the purpose of self-defence. Nuclear armament officially, at least for the time being, remains a taboo issue in Japan, but the more Pyongyang is testing missiles and nukes, the more Japan’s misguided pro-nuke lobby trumpets that the US nuclear umbrella is no longer good enough.
While nobody wants to blink first, somebody, however, has to do so at some point and start talking to Pyongyang in order to avoid catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula. While North Korean short-range missiles could – if not intercepted – reach downtown Tokyo in less than 10 minutes, Prime Minister Abe for his part continues to tell his electorate to take shelter from incoming missiles while thinking that having no plan is a good plan.
Axel Berkofsky, ISPI Senior Associate Research Fellow and Università degli Studi di Pavia