Kim Jong-Un’s 2017 threat to “bring nuclear clouds to the Japanese archipelago” shocked the world and forced Japan to recognize that their small, North Korean neighbor was a significant threat to the safety of their country, and they meant business. Though North Korean missile tests began as early as 1993, fears of an aggressive North Korea have only grown as they have advanced their military capabilities, even showing that they had the capability of striking as far as the United States in 2017. Recent tests in May of 2019 have shown that North Korea is not content with their arsenal and is willing to use force to achieve their goals. This is especially troubling for Japan, who is one of North Korea’s closest neighbors, and has little of its own military power. Their proximity and history of conflict and grievances puts a target on the back of the Japanese for North Korean aggression.
Even though Japan arguably has the most to lose if negotiations go poorly, they, unlike the Americans and South Koreans, have little power in controlling the situation and negotiating with the Communist country. Despite their lack of influence on North Korea, Japan has taken steps to get a seat at the negotiating table and promote national security. The strengthening of Japan’s influence on denuclearization negotiations is essential to ensure national security and reduce their reliance on the often inconsistent foreign policy from players in the international community.
Historically, Japan and North Korea have not had much of a relationship. After North Korea abducted Japanese citizens in 1977, Japan has refused to meet with North Korea until the abductees are returned; they never were. While the severing of ties may be justified, it explains why Japan has few diplomatic links to North Korea. Now that they have national security issues to resolve, Japan has no diplomatic groundwork to build off of.
North Korea also feels it has no reason to negotiate with Japan. Japan is not part of the ceasefire agreement that includes the United States, China, and the two Koreas, and has little of its own military power to deter an attack. The United States holds the majority of military power in Japan and is therefore a much larger threat. The best Japan can do it set economic sanctions, but once that has been done it has little power.
The Japanese lack of influence is exasperated by strained Japanese relations with South Korea and China. Since Japan does not have a diplomatic inroad to North Korea, they are forced to rely on other countries to fight for their cause and ensure a beneficial agreement is reached. However, years of conflict mean that China and South Korea have little inclination to help Japan. Japan and South Korea have not been on good terms since Japanese colonization finished at the end of World War Two. During colonization, many Korean women were used as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers and Koreans were forced to work in slave-like conditions; the negotiations for compensation has continued to this day without much compromise and has driven a wedge in Korean-Japanese diplomacy.
Japanese relations with China are not much better. For the most part, Japan and South Korea have chosen to align themselves with the United States, who is a clear rival of China. It is in China’s interest to slow down peace talks in order to break down the alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Since China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and arguably holds the most influence over the country, Japan would like to have China on their side to plead their cause.
The fact is, the triple-alliance is breaking down. Continued diplomatic issues and Korea’s economic rise has led Korea to believe that they do not need Japan’s support. On the other side of the alliance, United States foreign policy has changed to put American goals and safety ahead of international peace and security. While the United States is at the negotiating table with North Korea, they may come away with a deal that is not fully comprehensive, which would protect the United States but leave Japan vulnerable to short range North Korean missiles.
This is very disturbing for Japan; the United States has been the means of Japanese national security and military might since the end of World War Two. However, if the United States did make a deal with North Korea, it would be difficult to justify a continued American military presence in the region, which if were to disappear, would leave Japan in a weakened state, open to a North Korean attack. US policy on North Korea has been at times inconsistent and may be seen to prioritize North Korea over American allies. If Japan decides it cannot depend on the United States’ support militarily and diplomatically, they may decide to build their own military power and work towards other, more direct methods of influencing negotiations. Japan cannot allow their security to be compromised and without international help, the only way to ensure protection is to negotiate themselves.
North Korea has historically been hard to trust. Although agreeing to stop missile and nuclear testing and research in exchange for some concessions, it was later discovered that they continued testing despite the agreement. Even if the United States made a deal with North Korea, they could simply reactivate their facilities once the American military was gone or the benefits of pretending to go along with the deal disappeared.
Japan does have some methods of inciting change in denuclearization negotiations. As the third largest economy in the world, Japan has a lot to offer economically. Free trade would bring economic prosperity to North Korea and facilitate international cooperation. However, North Korea may see outside influences as a threat to the regime, but Japan is still able to offer economic assistance to aid in North Korea’s development and assist its destitute population. Financial aid may be a method for Japan to get a meeting with North Korea and give it a foothold in negotiations.
The greatest incentive Japan, or any country, can offer is the continuation of the Kim regime. No denuclearization deal will be made that does not allow Kim Jong-un to retain control. But no deal that does not include denuclearization should guarantee Kim’s control. Once that bargaining chip is used, there is no way to ensure that Kim will give up nuclear capabilities.
Since North Korea has no desire to negotiate with Japan, Japan may need to build stronger relationships with other countries and gain diplomatic leverage by building foreign influence. Especially in China, the United States, Russia, South Korea, and other countries with stronger ties to North Korea. Japan needs other countries to bring Japan’s demands and issues to denuclearization meetings they cannot go to. As stated before, Japan has long wanted the abductees returned, and the current Prime Minister has made it almost a personal mission to make sure they are returned. However, that is an issue that North Korea does not seem to intend to address, and other countries care much more about achieving denuclearization than the return of abductees North Korea says have already died. While it is an important issue, Japan may need to disconnect that issue from the conditions for a denuclearization deal if they want the world to involve them in negotiations.
As the American policy of protecting and militarizing Japan shifts towards more Americentric policies, Japan may find it necessary to rely less on the United States and strengthen their own military power. This would provide protection from North Korean threats but could also give Japan another bargaining tool to use in negotiations. A Japanese military force would not be something that North Korea could ignore any longer and could get Japan some influence in the region’s denuclearization policy.
Japan has moved to implement several of these options. They have initiated denuclearization talks and summits in an attempt to increase their influence in negotiations. Starting April 17, 2019, Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, intends to meet with leaders of the United States, Russia, China, South Korea to coordinate efforts on denuclearization.
Economic sanctions have induced North Korea to participate in talks, especially as China, one of North Korea’s only trading partners, has doubled down on restrictions as North Korean threats rise. It gives evidence to the fact that Japan will be able to gain influence over North Korea through financial means.
Japan has striven to develop closer cooperation and more unified policy with other countries. The April 17 talks with the United States focused on denuclearization, but also fears about trade restrictions as the United States threatens tariffs on cars and other Japanese goods. In Japanese meetings with South Korea on April 11, 2018, President Moon Jae-in requested Japan’s help in denuclearization negotiations and agreed to assist Japan in resolving the abductee issue with North Korea. Even more recently, on June 13, Shinzo Abe met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Hassan Rouhani to discuss sanctions and future trade, but also to mediate Iran-US tensions in the region. Unlike the United States, Japan enjoys favorable relations with Iran and may be able to use that relationship to ease Iran-US tensions to influence the United States to plead Japan’s cause in denuclearization negotiations.
A denuclearization deal will never be reached if the world powers do not cooperate and align their policies on North Korea. North Korea has been able to exploit competition and disorganization among countries to seek out concessions while still remaining a threat to the world. In China and Russia do not honor sanctions and enable the North Korean economy to run, they undermine the efforts of other countries. If the United States does not seek a deal that will promote worldwide stability rather than merely national stability, negotiations will not lead to a comprehensive denuclearization agreement.
While Japan’s interests are highly invested in denuclearization agreements, they have little direct influence over making policy, but they have noticed that no one country can bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear threat alone and they do play an influential role on the international stage. By leveraging that influence and coordinating international efforts, Japan has created a more unified front against North Korea and become a stronger player in the world.
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