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Japan’s Empty Menu of Options to Stop North Korea
Hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to have few choices save strong words of condemnation for the Kim regime’s missile tests. But he’s working the long game.
TOKYO — Waking up to a North Korean missile launch has become distressingly routine for residents of Japan this year. But until Tuesday the missiles were splashing down in the Sea of Japan, albeit sometimes uncomfortably close to the coastline. This time, the missile flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido before falling in three pieces into the Pacific Ocean, according to official reports. It was the first time Pyongyang had shot a ballistic missile over Japan itself, although it sent satellite launch vehicles over the country’s main islands in 1998 and 2009.
What will Japan do now? Shinzo Abe is arguably the most hawkish prime minister that Japan has had in the postwar era. All of his political instincts demand that North Korean defiance be met with a stern and uncompromising response. But he has already been in this very same position many times before — and none of the responses have worked. This time around, Japan is all out of choices, and Abe’s hawkish boasts are looking increasingly hollow.
North Korean missile launches are beginning to impinge on Japanese daily lives in a way in which they never did in the past. During Tuesday morning’s launch, the J-Alert system was activated throughout the nation’s 12 northernmost prefectures, meaning that a fearful public siren startled people awake just after 6 a.m. and mobile phones screamed out dire warnings that missiles could be raining down upon them at any moment. Many train services were halted until the alert was lifted.
The mobile phone alerts counseled people to immediately flee to basements — a rarity in Japan’s overcrowded housing blocks. As many residents commented on social media, there’s really nowhere to run and nothing much to be done when a missile alert arrives. Most people understand that civil defense measures of this sort are about as likely to be effective in the event of nuclear warfare as the old U.S. injunctions to “duck and cover.” That feeling of helplessness is politically dangerous to Abe, who has sold himself as Japan’s protector — but it’s also an opportunity.
The Japanese government’s immediate response fit the familiar pattern. The National Security Council hastily gathered in the prime minister’s residence to receive the latest intelligence reports and to discuss countermeasures. Bleary-eyed journalists scrambled to the center of government to receive brief comments from Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and the foreign and defense ministers trotted out solemn statements. This time, Abe’s declaration was that the missile test was an “unprecedented, grave, and serious threat” and significantly undermined “the peace and security of the region.” He pledged to take “all possible measures to protect the lives of the Japanese people.” With minor variations in wording, it was the same message that followed all of the significant North Korean missile tests this year.
The only unusual comment came from new Foreign Minister Taro Kono, a rare dove in the nest of hawks that makes up the current administration. Asked by a Japanese reporter about his assessment of Pyongyang’s intentions, he noted, “If North Korea had launched the missile to the south, the U.S. might have responded, after the considerable provocations from North Korea, so perhaps North Korea backed down a little.”
In other words, Kono was willing to measure Pyongyang’s provocative behavior against a more dire scenario — one in which it directly defied U.S. President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” ultimatum by firing into the vicinity of Guam, as previously threatened. By comparison, tweaking Hokkaido with a flyover looks good.
Downplaying the missile launch might be politically smart, given the lack of realistic options available. It’s not difficult to grasp the outlines of the discussion around Abe’s National Security Council table: Are the North Korean missile tests something that we can accept? Absolutely not. Must we take firm action in response to the threat? Yes, definitely. What sort of effective action can we take against them? Well, not that much really. The menu of effective options is empty.
There are, of course, the strong words of condemnation. There are the pledges to increase pressure on the North Korean regime and diplomatic movement at the U.N. Security Council. There are a few remaining untried possibilities regarding economic sanctions. But, at the end of the day, Tokyo is powerless to significantly alter Pyongyang’s weapons development policies, and everyone knows it.
The North Korean threat does serve to draw Japan closer to the United States, a country that could, if worst came to worst, annihilate North Korea. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party held its own meeting on the afternoon of the missile launch at which Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai talked up the alliance once again: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exchanged views with President Trump and showed a strong determination to secure the lives of the people under a strong U.S.-Japan alliance.”
So despite his political instincts calling for decisive action, Abe will react on this occasion precisely as he has done after every other missile test: tough words, no action. If he had any other option that he found palatable, he would have already taken it and at a far earlier stage of the developing threat.
Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus, suggested that there’s one remaining option, though Abe would likely find it abhorrent — to negotiate directly with Pyongyang. “I think dialogue is imperative, but Team Abe seems resolute about keeping that door shut,” he said. “There’s no reason not to persist in hard-line policies while also pursuing diplomatic options.”
The conventional argument against Kingston’s suggestion is that Kim Jong Un could simply drag out diplomatic talks while continuing to advance technology to the point where North Korea possesses reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles topped by nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the hard-line, no-compromise policies aren’t altering that trajectory.
At another level, however, the North Korean missile threat is helping Abe achieve one of the main political objectives of his entire career, which is to “normalize” Japan’s national security policies and to draw the Japanese public away from its pacifist constitutional state. That gives Abe a perverse incentive to encourage Pyongyang’s provocations — especially if the only way to effectively stop them means sacrificing his “hardman” image by resorting to the negotiating table.
The real probability that Kim could obliterate millions of people in Tokyo, and his penchant for seemingly aggressive and defiant behavior, has definitely concentrated the public mind on issues that they normally prefer not to think about. While most Japanese remain wary of the right-wing ideology that Abe promotes domestically, their belief that the North Korean threat is a real one makes them less inclined to actively oppose his initiatives on military policies.
Each year under Abe’s government there have been significant increases in the budget for the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The Defense Ministry has asked for a 2.5 percent bump in next year’s budget alone. When this is credibly linked to missile defense acquisitions and other measures to deal with North Korea, few Japanese complain.
Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Temple University’s Japan campus, sees the only real changes coming out of the most recent missile test as increased spending on missile defense in next year’s budget and the accelerated acquisition of the F-35 warplane but no startling operational changes.
The civil defense alerts and tough talk may do little to actually protect Japanese citizens and nothing to deter Kim from future provocations. But if worry about North Korea translates into public support for bigger defense budgets — or even a revision of the country’s pacifist constitution — Abe may be sleeping well while the rest of the country rests uneasy.
Photo credit: TOMOHIRO OHSUMI/Getty Images