Thor's Korea Diary

North Korea - The Japanese Card

@14 February 2003


Note : This commentary was also published in
The Asia Times on February 20, 2003

For related articles see :
North Korea - Pick Your Godfather (2006)
North Korea - The Smell of Rat (2002)
Who Wants a Reunified Korea? -- some reflections on war, peace and the armaments business (2001)
Korea, North & South: The Geopolitics of Unification (2001)

North Korea has been an international drama since its inception, and after half a century it is natural to feel jaded with adrenalin overload. Certainly many South Koreans seem to have learned to live with the rhetoric of metropolitan Seoul (22 million people) being turned into 'a sea of fire', if they pick a fight with comrades in the north. They are generally more concerned that ramping up the drama in the north will be bad for business, both personal and national. That's easy to sneer at from the comfort of another continent, but it is a genuine and immediate worry for South Koreans, and the true meaning behind polls which show that they overwhelmingly "fear Washington more the Pyeongyang". Experience has taught them from the first days of American post World War II administration on the peninsula that American ignorance can be deadly.

Economics is also the reason than most thinking South Koreans are extremely wary about rapid reintegration with North Korea. They believe with every justification that the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime would leave them with an economic and social disaster on their hands, a disaster which would set back Korean development for at least a generation. Few people, least of all South Korean leaders of any political persuasion, have illusions about the distasteful leadership in the North, but to varying degrees they prefer to buy that leadership off in the hope of coaxing the Northern economy into a less catastrophic state, and eventually absorbing it. For somewhat different reasons, this also seems to be the game plan of the Chinese leadership.

It is rare to see anything written about North Korea, or by North Koreans, which does not adopt a moral perspective. In a state so polarized from the community of nations that is probably inevitable, and like everyone else I am more or less unable to view North Korean society without wearing the moral cloak of my own understanding. The antidote to moral outrage is, of course, realpolitik, but this is often more illusory than real. Illusory because 'rational' judgement is a product of the premises we apply to a problem and those premises, through ignorance or willful choice, are rarely neutral. Where realpolitik can have predictive value perhaps is in trying to decode what might look like 'realpolitik' to various players. With this in mind, we might perceive that the 'pragmatic' incentives in the North Korean equation seem rather different to folk in Pyeongyang, Washington. Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, and of course, Seoul.

From where I sit, it is difficult not to feel that the North Korean saga is approaching some kind of end-game. That is not rational to contemplate for Seoul or Beijing. We get the feeling that Pyeongyang, which is concerned above all with regime preservation rather than reform, has a leadership which is running in smaller and smaller mental circuits. Maybe sooner than later, that has to mean some rash action against external 'enemies', or an internal coup, or both. The American take on this North Korean malady tends to fixate the media. We have seen all too clearly that the current administration in Washington has a visceral contempt for diplomacy over their version of realpolitik. However, even Washington feels constrained on the North Korean issue because of the problems pre-emptive action will create with China, Russia and South Korea. North Korea's stupid missile threats, especially talk of ICBMs reaching the American west coast, could swing American politics to some kind of military action on Korea. The big sleeper though is realpolitik as seen from Japan.

The Japanese public feels directly threatened by North Korean missiles. When that is added to a nuclear threat the imperatives for any Japanese government become overwhelming. The moral dimension in Japanese-Korean relationships (North or South) is potent on both sides, and can be rapidly swung behind support for violent action. There are strong historical reasons for this moral passion, but the pragmatic importance is that it exists as a political tool. The ordinary Japanese public is outraged by what they see as the betrayal of Koizumi's groundbreaking visit to North Korea last year, and the perfidious treatment of Japanese abductees (regardless that Japan did it's best to extinguish Korea as a nation and a culture from 1910 to 1945). Internally, Japan is in a state of economic paralysis and self-recrimination after the heady days of the 1980s. The more nationalistic wing of the Japanese polity feels castrated by the American security umbrella.

In short, to many the current North Korean nuclear charade could be a beacon of hope for the reassertion of Japanese self-respect.

I would not be surprised to see a pre-emptive strike by Japan on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities**. Washington would know about it in advance, and be pleased. It would give Washington a free pass out of a diplomatic impasse. Seoul would be hysterical, but couldn't do much. In fact, by holding the North Koreans' hands in sympathy, they would make it that much harder for Kim Jong-il and his cohorts to follow through with the 'sea of fire' threat. Beijing would be secretly relieved on one level, but be appalled by pending disintegration in the North, and like Moscow hold dark memories of Japanese militaristic hubris after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. As for the outcome on internal North Korean politics, that would turn on power plays amongst the leadership there, which we don't know about. We guess that at the moment Kim Jong-il is holding a rather inept balance between the military, party traditionalists and reformers. What might emerge when the card deck is split is anybody's guess.

Postscripts :

1. ** I was unaware that leading figures in Japan had begun to express precisely these sentiments at the very moment I was writing. For example, see this report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

2. Egg-on-face Time : After being reprinted in the Asia Times, this commentary somehow wound up on a Yahoo news link. The increased exposure led to a number of responses, some blustering, some interested. However, a couple of the most useful pointed out that at the moment the Japanese Self Defense Force actually lacked the strategic capability to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Here is one comment by a reader :

"I don't doubt Japan's technical military, or organizational prowess. Their Air Force is an excellent air superiority and self-defense force. I have no doubt that they could defeat any air armada in the region in air-to-air combat. But as far as I know, they are not equipped or trained for effective strategic or tactical ground-support bombing operations, thereby making any threat of a pre-emptive strike simple bluff. They have the wrong type of F-15s for that, and the lead time necessary to develop the capability is simply too long."   Kevin Widlansky

Axel Berkofsky, writing for the Asia Times, has also addressed this issue ( The relevant section is quoted here for convenience :

"If North Korea said it was going to turn us into a sea of fire and were about to load their missiles with fuel, Japan would start to consider whether North Korea had started an attack," said [Japanese Defense Minister] Ishiba, trying to defuse his explosive rhetoric.

Even Robyn Lim, professor of International Relations at Nagoya University, usually in favor of a tough line toward North Korea, fears that Ishiba might have leaned too far out of the window. "His statement doesn't help matters because it is not a credible threat. Japan doesn't have aircraft capable of attacking North Korea and returning home," Lim wrote.

Japan's defense establishment hopes that won't be true for much longer. By 2005, a couple of US-made in-flight-refueling aircraft will become part of the Japanese air force, allowing it to operate farther from home.
For now, however, Japanese Aegis high-tech destroyers, currently cruising in the Sea of Japan conducting "anti-North Korea drills", as Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun reports, would not even be able to shoot down incoming rogue missiles. "The ability of Aegis cruisers to actually shoot down missiles at this time is zero, since Japan's missiles on the Aegis vessels are not yet configured and developed for missile defense. It will need US assistance to shoot down anything at all," Hughes said.


3. Here is a good current review (27 February 2003) of the best way to handle the North Korean issue in the short term : "Talk to Pyongyang Now, US Told", Jim Lobe, Asian Times. As usual (sigh) the main roadblock is George W. Bush's kitchen cabinet...

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals, unless stated otherwise.

"North Korea - The Japanese Card"... copyrighted to Thor May 2003; all rights reserved
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