The summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un meeting on April 27, 2018 was a historic moment for Korea and for the world. The image of North Korean leader Kim and South Korean President Moon holding and raising hands after the signature of a joint statement quickly went global, sparking cautious optimism about a possible diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis. Japan, however, has not only remained deeply skeptical about North Korea’s will to denuclearize the Korean peninsula1Lee, Hakyung Kate & Cho, Joohee, ABC News, 27 April 2018; “North Korea, South Korea agree to end war, denuclearize peninsula“; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe actually relies on North Korea’s threatening and aggressive stance as a source of political capital. For Abe, a truly positive outcome to the June 12 summit between Trump and Kim might be just as worrying as a negative one.
To describe relations between Japan and North Korea as “problematic” would be an understatement. On January 16 this year, Japan experienced first-hand what it means to have a nuclear DPRK as a neighbor, when the country’s public broadcaster NHK erroneously issued an urgent evacuation warning about a North Korean missile launch2Kyodo News, via Japan Times, 17 January 2018, “NHK issues false missile alert on heels of Hawaii error“. On five separate occasions North Korean missiles have overflown or landed near Japan, and the DPRK’s violations of Japan’s EEZ have been relatively frequent over the years. On August 29, 2017, for example, an intermediate-range ballistic missile Hwasong-12, or NK-17, flew over Hokkaido – an unprecedented situation, given the lack of any previous warning. Japan is keenly aware of the DPRK’s need to use these weapons, in addition to its nuclear tests, to demonstrate its military strength – and finds the Kim regime’s diplomatic overtures suspect, as there have been many occasions in the past when North Korea made peaceful advances simply in order to ease international pressure and buy time for further military development.
North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens have been a key aspect of Abe’s position
North Korea’s deeply negative image in Japan also owes much to Pyongyang’s involvement in state-led kidnappings in Japan, including the still-unresolved kidnapping of a 13 year old Japanese girl3Strife Blog, 17 May 2018, “Strife Interview – Antonio Moscatello on ‘Megumi’“. The abductions issue has been a key aspect of Abe’s position on North Korea, and he has attempted to use this question to complicate the Trump-Kim summit – directly asking Trump to raise this matter in the discussions, along with other issues of interest to Japan4Griffiths, James & Wakatsuki, Yoko, CNN, 8 June 2018, “Families of Japanese abductees hope Trump-Kim talks will yield answers“. As stated by Tsuneo Watanabe of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in April, “We never trust the words of North Korea […] What we can trust is the actions of North Korea. That is probably a sentiment shared among all Japanese, including ordinary citizens.”5Rich, Motoko, New York Times, 25 April 2018, “Japan worries it’ll be forgotten as its Allies talk to North Korea“
Having a nuclear North Korea as a neighbor is definitely worrying for Japan. The prospect of a denuclearized Korea, on the other hand, may also have negative outcomes for Abe’s government. In truth, North Korea’s recent program of nuclear tests came at a politically advantageous time for the rulling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP). As party leader, Shinzo Abe has invested substantial political capital in a quest to amend Japan’s post-war constitution for the first time. Among other possible changes, Abe has advocated for a change to the pacifist Article 9, and has proposed 2020 as a deadline for making these amendments6Mainichi Shimbun, 9 May 2017, “Abe tells Diet 2020 deadline for revised Constitution meant to spur debate“. However, while Japan’s tough “maximum pressure” stance on North Korea is ostensibly meant to push the nation to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula might actually be the final blow to Abe’s plans for constitutional revision.
Japan may be politically apathetic, but antimilitarist norms remain widespread
Abe’s plan to change the constitution suffers in the first instance simply from being unpopular among Japanese citizens. His political struggles during his first tenure as Prime Minister in 2007 – abruptly curtailed by health issues – are arguably due in part to his failure to temper his nationalist ambitions, and underestimation of public resistance to his plans. On his return to power in 2012, Abe toned down his nationalist rhetoric and has spent most of his time in office focusing on more popular issues such as economy. Japan’s society may be largely apathetic when it comes to politics, but antimilitarist norms remain widespread and changes to the pacifist nature of Japan’s constitution find little support. Plagued by a series of scandals, Abe has seen his political capital wane and his chances of amending the constitution fade even further.
Yet Abe still holds a strong majority in the Diet and has not given up on his dream to “take back Japan” (Nippon o Torimodosu) – with changing the constitution being one of the key steps towards that goal. Arguments to that end formerly focused on promoting Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace”7Cabinet Office of Japan, 2014, “Japan’s Proactive Contribution to Peace“, a rhetorical frame which allowed Abe to appease Japanese voters’ desire for peaceful policies while at the same time promoting changes in the constitution that would enable Japan to proactively contribute to global peace. More recently, however, Abe has found in a nuclear-armed DPRK a new focal point for his rhetoric – a rogue state, a threat, in opposition to Japan’s role as a peace contributor. He relies on North Korea appearing threatening, and being perceived negatively, in order to build and support his case for constitutional amendments. The North Korean threat has been one of the central pillars of Abe’s communication aimed at promoting constitutional change.
A nuclear-armed DPRK is a focal point for Abe – a rogue state, a threat.
This domestic political consideration is a major reason why Abe has been advocating “maximum pressure” on North Korea8Landers, Peter, Wall Street Journal, 7 June 2018, “Japan’s Abe Wants Trump to Keep the Pressure on North Korea“. While Japan’s official position is that it supports the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Tokyo remains deeply skeptical of the entire process. The complicated relations between North Korea and Japan play a major role in Japan’s mistrust of Pyongyang, especially considering Japan’s proximity and direct involvement in the geopolitics of Northeast Asia. However, Abe also has one eye on the self-imposed 2020 deadline for amending the constitution. He knows that the clock is ticking and his quest for amendment will only become more difficult as time passes.
Despite Japan’s reluctance to trust Pyongyang and Abe’s reliance on DPRK’s nuclear program as a focal point for justifying constitutional changes, there is no question that Japan – as a major U.S. ally in the region and a proactive contributor to global peace – would ultimately welcome a positive outcome to the Trump-Kim summit. In the eventuality that the immediate North Korean threat actually dissipated, however, changing Article 9 of Japan’s constitution would be even more difficult – unless, of course, Abe can find another external negative actor to focus his rhetoric on.
Explore more of our North Korea articles:
- Japan Can Remain an Important U.S. Ally Despite Demographic Challenges
- The Future of Japan's Defense Is More Complicated than it Looks
- How Coronavirus Is Fraying Asia's Patchwork Governance
- Japan Looks to Trump to Represent its Interests
- Antonio Inoki's "Fighting Spirit Diplomacy"