The Abe Government’s Policy on North Korean Nuclear Issue
In the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats, the Abe government’s “increased pressure” policy is showing a clearer offensive tendency. However, it would be ineffective in curbing North Korea’s ambitions, and run the risk of hindering both the resolution of the nuclear issue and the development of regional inter-state relations.
The North Korean nuclear issue is a major regional issue with implications on Northeast Asian peace and security. Though not a direct party to the issue and unlikely to play a decisive role in its resolution, Japan’s policy on the North Korean nuclear issue, given historical and geopolitical factors as well as the Japan-us security alliance, would still exert complicated influence on the development of the issue and regional interstate relations, thus of special significance and deserving in-depth analysis.
Abe’s Policy of “Increased Pressure” on North Korea
In recent years, Japan’s policy on the North Korean nuclear issue has witnessed a shift from “engagement and dialogue” to “increased pressure.” During the second nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula in 2002, despite stern warnings from the United States that North Korea was conducting uranium enrichment, then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi insisted on visiting Pyongyang to address the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. During the meeting with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Koizumi proposed to resolve security problems including nuclear and missile issues by promoting dialogues among countries concerned, and advocated for engagement with North Korea. Following North Korea’s first nuclear test, the first Shinzo Abe government, though
denouncing the action as “unacceptable,” still adopted a combined policy of sanctions and limited engagement toward North Korea. After North Korea’s second nuclear test, the Taro Aso government also sought for settlement through United Nations resolutions and advocated return to the Six-party Talks, without much emphasis on exerting pressure. However, since Abe began his second term as Prime Minister, Japan’s policy on the North Korean nuclear issue has gradually turned from “pressure” to “increased pressure,” with the nuclear issue prioritized over the abduction issue. After North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, Abe explicitly advocated a tougher policy. In the face of two consecutive nuclear tests and a series of missile tests in 2016, Abe further stressed the necessity of “pressure” and “action.” In the wake of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in 2017, Abe went a step further, announcing that “there is no way forward other than to continue to maximize the pressure on it using every possible means” if North Korea does not abandon its nuclear and missile programs.1 Taking a comprehensive combination of diplomatic, security and economic measures, the Abe government has been increasing pressure on North Korea with strong messages and decisive actions.
A multi-layered “ring of encirclement”
The Abe government is endeavoring to build a three-layered “ring of encirclement” surrounding North Korea, with the US-JAPAN-ROK alliance as the inner layer, “US-JAPAN-ROK + China-russia” as the middle layer,” and an outer layer that incorporates other countries of the international community.
First, Japan attempts to build the core of the encirclement with the USJAPAN-ROK alliance. The Abe government has advocated cooperation with the international community, under the guidance of Japan-us alliance, to induce policy changes in North Korea. Under Japan’s proposal, the joint statement of the 2017 Japan-us “2+2” meeting “condemned in the strongest terms North Korea’s recurring provocations and development of nuclear and
ballistic missile capabilities,” and reiterated both countries’ commitment to pressure on Pyongyang.2 Abe even made three telephone calls with US President Donald Trump in a single week, confirming at the highest level that “stronger pressure must be applied on North Korea” and “the US is with Japan 100% as an ally.” Japan further utilized the opportunity of Trump’s first official visit to the Asia-pacific to consolidate the two countries’ united front against North Korea. Japan also actively supported the US decision to re-designate North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” In addition, in case of the US reversal on the North Korean nuclear issue, Japan has been frequently reminding and seeking confirmation from the US. During the US-JAPAN-ROK trilateral meeting of defense authorities, Japan reiterated that the North Korean nuclear issue is a “major and imminent threat not only to the peace and stability of Northeast Asia, but also to that of the US.”3 After then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated the US intention to talk with North Korea without preconditions, Director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry Kenji Kanasugi met with Joseph Yun, the US State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, the following day, reaffirming the need to put pressure on North Korea to elicit its serious intention and concrete actions toward denuclearization, and stressing again the necessity of Japan-us cooperation in pressuring North Korea.4 Japan also attaches great importance to cooperation with South Korea, and tries to take advantage of their respective alliance with the US to draw the pro-dialogue South Korea to its side and form a US-JAPAN-ROK core layer of “integrated diplomacy” against North Korea. On several occasions the Japanese Foreign Minister has called on South Korea to adopt maximum pressure on North Korea. The Japanese and South Korean Head of Delegation to the Six Party Talks also confirmed
that they would work closely at the UN Security Council and on other international occasions to keep pressure on North Korea.
Second, Japan tries to incorporate China and Russia into the “ring of encirclement” and build a pressure framework of “US-JAPAN-ROK + Chinarussia” against North Korea. In Japan’s opinion, Russia and especially China have extensive economic interactions with North Korea and thus enjoy greater influence on the country, and a ring of encirclement that includes both China and Russia would be more effective. Abe has, on several occasions, expressed an intent to urge Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin to adopt “more constructive measures,” arguing that “the international community, especially China and Russia, should take the hard facts seriously and increase pressure on North Korea.”5 The joint statement of the 2017 Us-japan “2+2” meeting even “strongly encourage(s) China to take decisive measures to urge North Korea to change its course of action.”6 Abe has also actively engaged in summit diplomacy with China and Russia. When meeting with President Putin, Abe asked Russia to fully implement the UN sanctions to put maximum pressure on North Korea. During the 2017 APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam, Abe also expressed his desire to cooperate with President Xi and President Putin. Aside from “hard pressure,” Abe also extended “soft overtures” to China and Russia. Japan’s attempt to enlist China’s support in its North Korea policy is a factor both in its shifting attitudes toward the Belt and Road Initiative, and in its efforts to improve China-japan relations.
Third, Japan undertakes a new form of “global diplomacy” to win international support. The second Abe government has advocated “global diplomacy,” which means developing “strategic diplomacy that looks at the global situation from a broad perspective” instead of simply concentrating on bilateral relations.7 As to the North Korean nuclear issue, Abe has
expressed to the international community the necessity of close cooperation, and argued for actively utilizing the “international ring of encirclement” with focus on Australia, ASEAN members, India and European countries.8 To this end, Abe secured agreement with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to apply further pressure on North Korea, and reached consensus with British Prime Minister Theresa May on defining the latest North Korean missile launch as “an outrageous provocation” that “posed an unprecedented, serious and grave threat to Japan’s national security.”9 Through phone calls, Abe confirmed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel their shared commitment to strengthening pressure on Pyongyang. The Prime Minister had also urged Asia-pacific nations, especially Southeast Asian countries, to jointly build a ring of encirclement against North Korea. In addition, Abe sent Katsuyuki Kawai, Special Advisor for Foreign Affairs to the President of the Liberal Democratic Party, to India in September 2017 to explain the severity of North Korean threat to the South Asian country. Following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono also talked with his counterparts of France and Ethiopia, then holding the UN Security Council presidency, to continue pressure. At the Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in January 2018, Kono again urged the international community to “continue to maximize pressure on North Korea and corner North Korea in order to change its policy toward denuclearization.”10
Strengthened deterrence against North Korea
Compared with previous Japanese governments, which put more emphasis on strengthening self-defense capabilities, the Abe government attaches greater importance to strengthening deterrence against North Korea,
in addition to upgrading its current radar system and developing secondary warning radars in an attempt to enhance the ability to collect intelligence on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. To be specific, the Abe government is trying to increase its deterrence capabilities in the following three aspects.
First, consolidating the Us-japan alliance and enhancing military integration between the two countries. Abe has emphasized that “With regard to North Korea, it is important that we strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and also that we enhance the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-us alliance.”11 At the summit level, Abe and Trump have, through frequent phone calls, agreed to adopt concrete actions to enhance their defense posture and capabilities, and confirmed “the two countries’ ironclad mutual defense commitments.” Trump also “reaffirmed the
commitment of the United States to defending (US) homeland, territories, and allies using the full range of diplomatic, conventional, and nuclear capabilities at (US) disposal.”12 At the cabinet level, the two countries confirmed at the “2+2” meeting their shared commitment to enhance and accelerate cooperation in air and missile defense, among other areas.13 In terms of military cooperation, Japan is purchasing more American weapons at the request of President Trump. In its 2018 defense budget, Japan’s purchase of US arms under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program reached as high as 410.2 billion yen.14 In addition, the two countries have conducted frequent joint military exercises over the past year, which witnesses strengthened “integration” of the US Armed Forces and the Japanese Self-defense Forces.
Second, upgrading the missile defense system and considering interception of North Korean missiles. Japan’s current missile defense network includes the Aegis destroyers, which intercept from the sea ballistic missiles above the atmosphere during the midcourse phase of flight, and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system, which strike down from the land missiles as they reenter the atmosphere. In an effort to guard against any interception loopholes left over by Aegis destroyers and increase its offensive capabilities to respond to cruise missiles on a larger scale, Japan is currently considering introducing the US military’s land-based Aegis system and the SM-6 missile to upgrade its own SM-3 missile. Japan also indicated that it would not rule out the possibility of intercepting North Korean missiles flying over its territory. At a meeting of the House of Councilor’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, the Defense Ministry’s Directorgeneral of the Bureau of Defense Policy Satoshi Maeda, when asked about the issue, responded, “Interception would cripple the detonating devices on
The US Defense Secretary James Mattis meets with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera in Washington DC on April 20. The two sides affirmed the importance in providing credible military backing to the maximum pressure campaign, and agreed to continue enhancing alliance capability to deter and respond to North Korean aggression.