Japan not falling for North Korea’s charms
North Korea’s recent charm offensive with South Korea is being viewed by Japanese leaders and leading analysts as an intentional distraction by Pyongyang from its persistent development of nuclear and missile technology, which poses a clear and direct threat to countries in its neighborhood and as far away as the United States.
On February 11, 2018, in Brunei, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, pictured, spoke of Pyongyang’s current “smile diplomacy” displayed during North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He emphasized that Tokyo would not be “swayed” and is committed to working with Washington and Seoul “toward the ultimate goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula,” according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency.
Kono informed reporters that North Korea had conducted a military parade the day before the winter games began, “as if to show off its missiles. Its intention regarding nuclear and missiles development has not changed.”
FORUM reached Rand Corp.’s East Asian security expert Dr. Jeffrey Hornung in Tokyo for his analysis of the situation.
“There is a fundamental distrust about North Korea,” said Hornung, referring to Japan’s leadership. “In fact, the [Japanese] government rejects the North’s charm offensive against the South and refuses to recalibrate its current policy trajectory. Instead, Tokyo desires a unified front to deal with the North. This unified front is one of maximum pressure through sanctions, diplomacy, and supporting the notion of keeping every option on the table. Where there is a concern is that South Korea’s openness to the North’s efforts could drive a wedge in current efforts to reign in the North.”
North Korea has provoked Japan for decades, starting with the launch of a single-stage ballistic missile that landed in the Sea of Japan in 1993. In 2015, a pair of North Korean ballistic missiles cruised over Japan, bringing condemnation from Tokyo. The most recent missile fired from North Korea landed in Japanese waters in late November 2017.
South Korea President Moon Jae-in made renewed talks with North Korea a central plank of his 2017 election campaign platform. Now that this hope has become a reality, according to Hornung, Moon faces the challenge of keeping the squeeze on Pyongyang’s dictatorial regime.
“If he pursues talks,” said Hornung, “it risks splitting Seoul from Tokyo and Washington’s maximum pressure approach that takes time to be effective. It also provides the North an avenue for avoiding the sanctions, given how Seoul has been willing to provide resources for things relating to the Olympics. As long as Tokyo and Washington are pursuing their approach to the North, it is unclear how Moon’s efforts at dialogue will sync well with this. There is an expectation in Tokyo that as soon as the Olympics/Para-Olympics are done, the North will return to its prior behavior.”
Historically, the North has looked for loopholes to skirt sanctions and backslide on agreements it made to reduce its nuclear program, Hornung said. Tokyo is now concerned that North Korea aims to use Seoul’s current appetite for dialogue with Pyongyang to achieve the same double-dealing, he added.
“While Japan doesn’t gain from contentious relationships between the North and South [Korea], it does gain if allies of the U.S. speak with a single voice,” he concluded. “There is no expectation [in Tokyo] that the North is genuinely pursuing dialogue to lower tensions and seek to resolve outstanding issues. Instead, there is a strong consensus that the North is playing the South for its benefit.”
Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.