It appears that one of the prime players in the Northeast peninsula, Japan, has been ‘left out in the cold’. Japan appears trailing behind South Korea, China, Russia and America, all of whom have built bridges with the linchpin of security in the peninsula, i.e. North Korea.
The desired security architecture in the peninsula is a complex entanglement where all the players are in the ‘same bed’ but, in chasing different objectives and goals, have ‘different dreams’.
America, the lead player and ‘pivot’ in the peninsula, concluded a landmark summit with North Korea in Singapore in June 2018, sparking President Donald Trump’s budding ‘bromance’ with North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un (“We fell in love,” said President Trump), and the recent US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo-Chairman Kim meet, committing to a second summit between the two. Unwittingly, America has spurred a scramble to court North Korea, notably by China, whose relations with neighbour North Korea had been lackadaisical.
Since the 18th Party Congress in China (in 2012, which sealed President Xi Jinping’s primacy in China), there had been no face-to-face President Xi-Chairman Kim meet. In the last decade, China-North Korea socialist camaraderie had taken a beating. China’s ship of ‘economic reforms’ in North Korea had sunk before it had sailed. To add to frazzled relations, a high-profile pro-China lobbyist in North Korea, Jang Song-thaek (Chairman Kim’s uncle), had met his end. In the last decade, China’s strategic community reassessed North Korea as less of a ‘strategic asset’ (despite being a critical buffer) and more of a ‘strategic liability’—an economic drain with hard-to-manage safety standards as a nuclear weapons state and diplomatic scar on a rising China that aspired to be a great and responsible power.
Instead, Chinese President Xi chose to visit South Korea (2014) over North Korea, buttressed trade with South Korea with an FTA (2015) and former President Park Geun-hye attended China’s Victory Day celebration (victory over Japan, WWII) in September 2015—an ironical twist, given that 61 years earlier, Chairman Mao and Chairman Kim Il-Sung (grandfather of the present leader, Chairman Kim) had once shared the podium.
China-South Korea relations so blossomed that the Global Times preened about the ‘economically and politically hot’ relationship. But the friendship came to a dead-end with President Park’s announcement of the deployment of THAAD in 2016 (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense by America). China alleged that THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 X-band radar would expose China’s missile activities in the Northeastern/Eastern region.
Some of China’s fears have been allayed through the “Three No’s” (in 2017) with South Korea ruling out further THAAD deployment and trilateral alliance with America. It has also committed to non-participation in an America-led Missile Defence System.
However, South Korea’s trade and tourism have been badly hit. South Korea’s Lotte group (which handed over its land at Seongju for THAAD deployment) is closing its 100-odd Lotte Mart stores and exiting China, and sales of South Korean cars/cosmetics have faltered. Ominously for China, South Korea has taken this as an opportunity to diversify its basket with several businesses such as Lotte, EMart, CJ CheilJedang Group and Samsung heading to Vietnam with investments. In the future, Vietnam is expected to be South Korea’s number two export market.
In such a politically-charged peninsula, Japan has maintained a quiet reticence that comes in sharp contrast to that of the other players. In fact, Japan-North Korea relations continue to be in a freeze, undermined by the weight of history—Japanese colonisation, abductions, missile tests and nuclear tests by North Korea.
The emotional issue of Japanese colonisation and abduction of Japanese citizens remains an obstacle. On the latter, while President Trump addressed the issue of intercontinental ballistic missiles which may impact America, there was less clarity on medium range missiles which impact Japan. A reduced American presence in South Korea and suspension of America-South Korea military exercises would impact Japan’s security.
In a recent development, Japan’s White Paper on Defence (August 2018) claimed that Japan’s security environment was ‘severe’ because of China and North Korea. In particular, it called North Korea ‘a serious and imminent threat’, noting that 40 ballistic missiles had been launched (which flew over the Japanese island of Hokkaido twice) and three nuclear tests conducted since 2016, including the sixth nuclear bomb test (equated with a Hydrogen Bomb, 2017). Indeed, ‘J-Alert’—Japanese emergency warning system (text message, television bulletins) in response to North Korea’s missile launches—is, by now, well-known by the Japanese public.
Besides North Korea, Japan made pointed references to China’s growing ambitions in the South China Sea, the fracas with China over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the contentious territorial imbroglio with Russia over Kuril Islands.
The White Paper seemed to justify Japan’s ministry of defense’s largest-ever budget request of 5.3 trillion yen for April 2019. Japan purports to build a ‘cross-domain’ defence strategy to address the ‘sophisticated threats’ that it faces. Japan is seeking US-made Aegis Ashore land-to-air ballistic missile defence systems (BMD) as a defence against incoming missiles as well as the longer-range Raytheon SM-3 to strike missiles/improve the accuracy of its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles.
In other words, Japan has seen the potential opportunity to drive a change in Japan’s status in the region where it is eclipsed by China. Japan is still tied to the excesses of Imperial Japan (1895-1945) and remains bound by the no-war clause of Article 9 of its post-war pacifist Constitution. Moreover, Japan’s Yoshida Doctrine (named after Japan’s post-war Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, 1946-47; 1948-54) entailed focus on economics, not security.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who recently won the historic third-term (and who may remain the Prime Minister past 2021) seeks an evolution of the Yoshida Doctrine. Abe has made constitutional revision high on the agenda (which has not been amended in its 72-year old history) seeking the ‘birth of a new Japan’ before it plays host to the 2020 Olympics.
Part of Abe’s vision is to attune Japan to the changing security dynamics in the peninsula with moves such as the ‘Security Diamond’ (Quad, with America, Australia and India), the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the cache of arms from America.
The constitutional revision purports to clarify and formalise the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF, which is the de facto military regarded as unconstitutional). Japan is mired in debate on how to retain the core essence of Article 9 (no war, no standing army) but seek a clarity on the legal status of SDF, which has, so far, been proactive in humanitarian missions and for ‘collective self-defence—but what shape it is likely to take is critical.
While Japan-North Korea relations remain in the freeze, Japan is keeping options open. Recent newspaper reports say that Japanese officials have met with North Korean officials in Vietnam in July bypassing America and that foreign ministers have begun engagement—both are significant moves.
History posits Japan-North Korea to ‘seize’ the opportunity to emerge from the cesspool of history, but the conundrum is easier said than done. For Japan, revising its Constitution, legitimising SDF and making peace with North Korea comes with challenges. For North Korea, with its frail economic disposition, the promise of Japanese benediction comes with the possibility of turning North Korea’s benefactor China, its ‘strategic asset’, into a ‘strategic liability’.
The delicacy of battle-lines and fault-lines will continue to make the peninsula the political ring of fire, where game-changing opportunities come with seemingly intractable challenges, and roses with guns, at least for now.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. (Views are personal)