Japan Must Open New Horizon with S. Korea

SOEYA Yoshihide
Faculty Fellow, RIETI

The Unites States, China, Russia and Japan are often referred to as the "four great powers" of East Asia. That South Korea is surrounded by these Big Four is common sense to Seoul's foreign policy planners, who are seriously worried Japan and China will start a geopolitical fight over the Korean Peninsula once the two Koreas have been unified.

Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung reiterated during his presidency that to prevent such an eventuality, U.S. forces must remain on the post-unification peninsula. I still vividly recall my meeting with Kim after his historic summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Il in June 2000. He said he and the other Kim had concurred on the need for a continued U.S. military presence on the peninsula to prevent historical Sino-Japanese rivalry from recurring.

Does Japan intend to be a player in such a geopolitical game ever again? Most Japanese, I am sure, would discount such a possibility out of hand. Throughout these post-World War II years, Japan has never thrown diplomatic weight as one of the so-called four great powers, and it never will.

Often enough, however, this is hardly Japan's perceived image in South Korea and many others nations, where remarks by high-profile Japanese people concerning history or national security are almost automatically processed as statements by "big-power Japan." This is why any casual remark by Japanese politicians about the North Korean threat gets blown out of proportion and becomes fodder for speculation for those who presume Japan must be considering nuclear armament to become a military power.

This is a gross misconception. But even then, Japan must deal with this as a matter of its own strategic issue. Failing to do so would be tantamount to perpetrating the vicious circle of being unable to come into its own in international politics and thereby stoke the public's vague and often emotional discontent.

Just when I started writing this commentary, I was asked by British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) radio to comment on Japan's reaction to Pyongyang's admission it possesses nuclear capability during the April 23 to 25 talks in Beijing with U.S. and Chinese representatives.

It was obvious the BBC reporter wanted me to say Tokyo was sorely tempted to consider nuclear armament. But I told him emphatically there was no such possibility, even though some Japanese might hint at it. We ended our conversation there, but when I next heard from the BBC a littler later, I was told my comments would not be needed because there was to be a change in programming.

This episode demonstrated something more than the media's ignorance of Japan or their tendency to seek sensationalism. It revealed a deep-rooted mental block, or an inability to register the postwar context of security debates in Japan, no matter how carefully the situation is explained in the context of the peace Constitution and other factors.

In short, the foreign media want to hear only what suits their image of Japan seeking a military power status - such as that the North Korean threat has given Japan the perfect excuse.

But as proven by the Beijing talks in April, Japan is not a diplomatic equal of China and the United States. On the North Korean issue, in fact, Japan is closer in rank to South Korea than the two political big-powers - the United States and China. That Japan and South Korea are lesser players was confirmed by the fact they themselves agreed to sit out the Beijing Talks. Thus, where the North Korea nuclear issue is concerned, the Japanese and the South Koreans have no choice but to follow America's lead. On other issues, however, there are areas where the Japanese and the South Koreans can assert their respective leadership.

Seen in this light, I must stress the tremendous significance of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's decision to visit Pyongyang in September last year. At the time, Japan's foreign policy agenda was clearly different from that of U.S. President George W. Bush. Japan's policy then was to maintain a solid alliance with the U.S. in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, but at the same time also focus on aid to North Korea as an integral part of the normalization deal.

In fact, the Pyongyang Declaration not only secured the commitment of international agencies to the betterment of the North Korean economy, but it also included an agreement to the effect that Japanese aid would benefit not the Pyongyang leadership but the public at large.

There is no question that the continued survival of the Kim regime is Pyongyang's priority. This means there is no guarantee Tokyo's aid policy will proceed as intended after the normalization of relations.

But North Korea was absolutely serious about diplomatic normalization when it accepted Koizumi's visit. For Kim, signing the Pyongyang Declaration was tantamount to crossing the Rubicon. By personally admitting the abduction of Japanese nationals by his agents and identifying the "suspicious vessels" in Japanese waters as North Korean spy ships, Kim has effectively set in motion a gradual debilitation of his regime and the North Korean social system.

When negotiations with Tokyo collapsed, Pyongyang defied Washington by escalating its nuclear program. But Washington will be anything but an easy negotiating partner, given the Bush administration's determination to force its way - as it has done with Iraq - unless Pyongyang agrees to terminate its nuclear program.

I have no doubt Japan and North Korea will resume normalization talks in the not too distant future. When that time comes, the new round will naturally start from what Koizumi has already achieved from his Pyongyang visit last September.

Japan must then open a new horizon for its cooperation with South Korea while working in close concert with the United States.

>> Original text in Japanese

* The article was reprinted from International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun on May 26, 2003. The original article appeared in The Asahi Shimbun on May 4, 2003. No reproduction or republication without written permission of the author and The Asahi Shimbun.

May 26, 2003 International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun

May 29, 2003

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