Fear is a Best-seller

June 28th, 2012

Pyongyang’s failed rocket launch last month created quite a stir in the international arena. Nations in East Asia flaunted their top missile defense capabilities, the U.S. set about pulling out all diplomatic stops, and China chortled its best ‘non-interference’ rhetoric. The international media, as anyone would expect, focused its watchdog eye on what actions the DPRK would take, and what the result of the launch would be. Western journalists debated North Korea’s ulterior motives for seeking satellite technology, but no one really questioned the incentives of the other nations in the Six Party Talks for the launch to actually go ahead.

Well, why should they? Japan was in the way of the satellite trajectory and needed to rightly defend itself, while the U.S. had obligations to protect its allies in the region and it has been playing a key role in DPRK negotiations for years. Why should we suspect them for anything other than initiating well-founded, preemptive strategies? With North Korea having hinted at another nuclear test, East Asia is again concerned about potential DPRK security threats.

Kim Yong-min

South Korean cartoonist Kim Yong-min of Seoul’s Kyunghyang Shinmoon perhaps saw the dark humor behind the satellite launch and the regional fear of North Korea’s’s nuclear capabilities. The cartoon explains an alternate, more iniquitous story of how Japan and the US may be capitalizing on the region’s simmering fear

The 5 April cartoon depicts a forlorn Kim Jong-il alongside a grossly caricatured Japanese wartime figure who complains, “I was worried that you might not go ahead with the launch,” while his rocket bears the inscriptions “Self Defense Forces” and “Constitutional Revision.”

The US rocket of our suit-wearing capitalist states “Expand Missile Defense” while on his suitcase “Military Industries” is written.

One cannot ignore just how helpful a national security threat is at bolstering support and patriotism in a country. Japan’s Prime Minister Aso found his swagger during the April satellite crisis, ordering Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to shoot down any debris from the launch, and consequently inflating his domestic support, if only slightly, in light of the upcoming elections.

Author of Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe Gavan McCormack argues that the perceived North Korea missile threat may have also aided Prime Minister Aso in “selling” the unproven and incredibly expensive missile defense systems he proposed as defense to the Japanese electorate.

In addition, Aso’s tough position on the DPRK satellite launch may have helped to bolster the case for constitutional revision, introducing a full-scale Japanese rearmament, as the Korean cartoon above infers. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have kept to the back burner, and some Japanese groups believe it is time to revise the constitution. Aso could really seize the opportunity, and use the DPRK threat to make the country’s national-security strategy appear a bit more rugged.

The United States has long held major security interests in East Asia, and has since developed well-fortified military alliances with many of North Korea’s neighbors. Any inclination towards aggression on North Korea’s behalf would logically initiate an increase in military defense purchases from nervous East Asian nations, and who better the merchant than the world’s largest military exporter and a close military friend? According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, American exports of defense articles, such as military aircraft, firearms, and explosives, ranged from about $19 billion to $22 billion annually in years 2005 to 2009. American exports of defense articles were concentrated in a few countries, with about half going to Japan alone[1].

The Kim Yong-min cartoon seems to neglect one crucial element in this equation; our regional browbeat China. Discourse in Japan seems adverse to China’s rise, however public discussion about how to deal with the changing dynamics of the regional status quo is muted. Japanese officials and the public alike express uneasiness towards China’s rise behind closed doors, partly for fear of provoking Beijing where unpleasant memories of Japanese brutality in 1931-45 vex both regional powerhouses. Defending the Land of the Rising Sun against North Korea seems to be a less controversial use of defense procurement.

From the perspective of U.S. interests, the greatest strategic challenge in East Asia is also on how to respond to increasing Chinese influence. The omnipresent threat of North Korea’s reprobation gives the US a large amount of legitimacy for the positioning troups in South Korea, as close as possible to Sino-Korean borders. In 2011 the United States was estimated to have 28,500 troops in South Korea, maintaining deterrence against North Korea as the central theme to the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

In the foreseeable future, both Japan and the U.S. will continue to lose sleep over North Korea’s ominous security threats. However, are these nations actually profiting from East Asia’s DPRK neurosis, or simply making the best out of an already unpleasant situation?


[1]              GAO, U.S Government Accountability Office, ‘Reporting on Exported Articles and Services Needs to Be Improved’, Sep 21, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-952, accessed 27/6/2012

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About the Author

Tasharni Jamieson