[Viewpoint] Testing the limits of Aso’s diplomacy‘The question is beyond the limit of what I can answer.”
On May 25, when North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan said the above at his official residence when asked what he thought was the reason international society could not stop North Korea’s nuclear tests.
The word “limit” has become controversial. Panels on TV talk shows agreed that it was not proper for the prime minister to say it, and the chairman of the ruling party criticized his remarks, saying that Japan is being excluded on North Korea issues.
On the same day, Mitoji Yabunaka, the director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, when criticized for not doing more, emphasized that it was an issue to which not only Japan but all of international society had responded, without elaborating further.
Considering their remarks altogether, what Japan’s authorities really wanted to say was perhaps something like, “Because China, North Korea’s biggest aid supplier, is reluctant to impose sanctions,” or, “Because during the George W. Bush administration, the United States removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.”
Since its nuclear test, North Korea has kept making provocations. It is about to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, too. Japan regards itself as the only country that is under direct threat by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. In practice, the North Korea threat is not aiming at the mainland United States, and Japan’s situation is not like that of South Korea, which is constantly under North Korean threat across the truce line, whether from missiles or otherwise.
Because Japan has such reason to worry, when North Korea launched its satellite in April, Japan positioned an Aegis destroyer with PAC-3 and SM-3 missiles in the East Sea in case the North Korean rocket fell in Japan’s territory. Japan intensified sanctions against North Korea by extending the period to renew the sanctions from six months to a year.
This time, Japan is responding in a calm way, unlike in April when it ratcheted up rhetoric to wartime levels. That is because a majority of the general public believes that measures or sanctions implemented by Japan will do nothing, no matter how much the country’s leaders overreact, without the cooperation of international society, including China.
Inside Japan, the argument that it needs to seek realistic measures to respond to the issue is gathering strength. That is, if South Korea, the United States and Japan cannot get China’s help to enforce strong sanctions, the only way to resolve the issue is to make North Korea give up its nuclear development program using the reward of normalized ties with the United States.
Japan’s former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said on May 27 that it would be good to re-examine Japan’s North Korea policy and pointed out the limitation of unilateral sanctions. Shunji Yanai, former ambassador to the United States, wrote recently in a column that although international society would not admit that North Korea is a nuclear state, it was time to think seriously about Japan’s policy on the Korean Peninsula as it is a fact that there are nuclear weapons there.
The public has begun to believe that the hard-line North Korea policy implemented since the Shinzo Abe administration has not produced any results. Considering that the approval ratings for the Aso administration have not changed much, in Japan, it no longer works to use North Korea’s threat for political purposes. The North Korea issue will put Prime Minister Aso’s capacity for diplomacy to the test, particularly when general elections are closing in.
*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park So-young