Policy Update 005

Japanese View of Nuclear Impasse of North Korea

Michael YOO
Research Associate, RIETI

At a time when the U.S. is on the verge of war with Iraq, Japan and North Korea are in a tense deadlock. Any news story related to North Korea has recently been massively broadcast by the media and has drawn the utmost public attention in Japan. The key event was the return of Japanese kidnapped victims from NK after two decades, which is still spotlighted among the Japanese. The continuing concern and broadcasting of the numbers of victims and the possible alive in NK has consequently obstructed Japanese negotiations of normalized diplomacy with NK without national support. Instead of the abduction controversy, the worldwide nuclear threat from NK is the core of anxiety among the U.S., China, South Korea, and neighboring countries around Japan.

The decade-lasting guessing about whether NK has nuclear weapon was verified by a CIA report on November 21st which stated that NK possesses one or two nuclear weapons and NK has continuingly developed its nuclear program. The U.S. Congress tends to impose sanctions on NK based on the evidence from CIA reports. The U.S. government will by no means stop North Korean nuclear program including the possibility of terminating the aid to NK. According to Brent Scowcroft, the former National Security advisor, the U.S. and the international community are committed to put an embargo on investing and trading in NK until NK fully complies with the obligation of prohibition of nuclear proliferation. In addition, the fund transfer from overseas to North Korea will be blocked as well. Ultimately, it will be necessary to deploy military action to destroy the nuclear program if the approach of diplomacy or sanctions has no effect.

In contrast to the U.S. assertive attitude and reaction, Japan shows more vague gestures. Japan and South Korea still tend to consider the U.S. accusation of NK as an uncertain rumor, even though they are opposed to the North Korean nuclear program with their allies. Prime Minister Koizumi claimed that China and North Korea should yield the possession of nuclear weapons during the ASEAN summit in November. He also asserted that North Korea must terminate the uranium-enrichment program during the normalization talks with NK in October. Despite the opposed diplomatic remarks, Japan seems to have no card to play against the continuing development of the NK nuclear program. Such contradiction appeared vivid when Japan opposed the U.S. proposition of immediately cutting off future shipments of heavy fuel oil to NK. At the same time, South Korea also presented its support of continuing shipments.

Japan contended that the continuing supply of heavy fuel oil to NK, based on the agreement of KEDO, is an effective alternative to refrain NK from developing nuclear weapons. Apparently, Japan stands in opposition position with the U.S. However, the three countries consequently reached consensus that the oil shipment to NK will be cut off after November. The Japanese contradictory attitude also reflected on the negotiation of diplomatic normalization with NK. Japan claimed that the diplomatic relations between the two countries would be normalized without question when NK is willing to frankly deal with security issues such as abducting, nuclear weapons, and missile disputes. However, Japan has not presented an explicit framework regarding to nuclear program.

The disagreement between Japan and the U.S. is rooted in the fundamental differences regarding nuclear disputes with NK. Japan argued the credibility of information from the U.S. regarding the development of the NK nuclear weapons. Japan is reserved to consider the act of NK as an experiment but not development. It is uncertain whether to judge Japanese conflicting disagreement is because Japan would rather rely on its own source of information or Japan is reluctant to respond the support under the framework led by the U.S. However, it is clear that Japan rarely seriously takes into account the viewpoint in terms of the NK nuclear issue from Washington DC.

The above assumption also reflected on Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang. Koizumi claimed that Japan successfully to persuade NK extending the missile launch until after 2003. However, the goal of Koizumi's visit was on the nuclear issue expected by the U.S. Despite the significance of the nuclear threat claimed by the allies, Koizumi still seemed to not adopt the U.S. demand of negotiating the end of the NK nuclear development, but instead transferred the focus on missile launch.

It is not certain if NK possess nuclear weapons or not. It is a question of credibility of U.S. information. However, the Bush Administration assertively listed NK as one of "the axis of evil." The determination of U.S. action regarding the NK nuclear threat is more solidified by the assertiveness of declaring war with Iraq. It seems that the U.S. will aggressively tackle the NK nuclear issue according to its own scheduled plan. It is apparent that President Bush considers NK as an evil the U.S. needs to fight with without question, according to the article of "Bush at war" in The Washington Post, written by Bob Woodward.

How will Japan respond to e future changes in NK tension? How will Japan react if the development of nuclear weapon is a fact and not a rumor? Will Japan urge NK to be willing to comply with the obligation based on the Pyongyang declaration for the resolution of nuclear problems in Korean peninsula? Besides the kidnapping issue, Japan has more imminent issues to be resolved in terms of NK.

>> Original text in Japanese

December 12, 2002

December 12, 2002

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