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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
The July 10 elections for the Upper House of the Japanese Diet produced a two-thirds “super majority” for Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and like-minded coalition partners. This seems to ensure that Abe’s plan for constitutional revision can go forward since he now has the necessary majorities in both legislative Houses. Any move to amend or rescind the pacifist Article 9 of the post-War “MacArthur” constitution, however, would still face some rough sailing as it would require an electoral endorsement by Japanese voters. The well-known pacifist, anti-nuclear views of a large portion of the Japanese public, born of the horrific end-of-the-war atomic bombings of two Japanese cities and re-enforced by the 2011 Daiichi Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster, will not be easily overcome.
The cause of Beijing’s increasing trepidation over a possible Japanese large-scale military build-up can be laid largely at the feet of a nuclear-armed North Korea. However, Shinzo Abe’s revisionist views of imperial Japan’s past militarism are also a cause of concern for not only China, but for South Korea and other neighbors who suffered. Consequently, Abe’s August 3rd decision, in his Cabinet reshuffle, to name the controversial Tomomi Inada as Defense Minister, a frequent visitor to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, certainly raises questions about his sincerity in working with Seoul to face the North Korean nuclear challenge.
As the Associated Press reports, Inada has “defended Japan’s wartime atrocities…and has led a party committee to re-evaluate the judgment of war tribunals led by the victorious Allies.” She is also linked to a notorious anti-Korea group and was seen posing with the leader of a neo-Nazi group in a 2011 photo. Finally, she has said “parts of the war-renouncing Article 9 should be scrapped, arguing that they could be interpreted as banning Japan’s military.”
Pyongyang’s launching of a ballistic missile that landed in Japan’s economic exclusion zone on the same day as the Inada appointment unnerved Japan and underscored the necessity of a united front with regional partners. Abe called the launch “a great threat.” Yet North Korea had first emerged more than a decade ago as an increasingly sinister force that projected a direct threat to Japan’s security. A previous 1998 North Korean missile flyover of Japan was a wake-up call for the Japanese public, with missile fragments falling into waters perilously close to the Japan’s shore. Japanese interlocutors in discussions with Congressional staff in the years after that missile incident referred to it as “our Cuban missile crisis.”
North Korea has both the means and the delivery capability to wreak nuclear havoc on Japan
Pyongyang’s series of underground nuclear tests, begun in 2006 and continuing this year, coupled with its missile development, demonstrate that North Korea has both the means and the delivery capability to wreak nuclear havoc on Japan. And given its bellicose propaganda, Pyongyang also seems to have the will to strike in certain circumstances.
The threat posed by North Korea to Japan, however, goes beyond the nuclear. North Korean involvement in illicit activities with the Japanese crime network, the Yakuza, is clearly documented. The Japanese Coast Guard raised a North Korean spy ship after a December 2001 naval skirmish, subsequently displayed in Tokyo’s Maritime Science Museum. Badges uncovered on board of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung confirmed the ship’s origin. A cell phone with Yakuza phone numbers was also recovered. The Telegraph reported at the time that “the vessel was disguised as a Chinese fishing boat but is believed to have been smuggling drugs to Japan.”
North Korean spy vessels were also used in kidnappings. In one of the greatest diplomatic miscalculations of all times, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il revealed in his 2002 summit with then Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi that Pyongyang frogmen had, indeed, penetrated the Japanese homeland and snatched citizens away.
The subsequent public outcry in Japan seemed to take Kim, and the entire Pyongyang leadership, who were looking for diplomatic recognition and a sizable aid package from Tokyo, by surprise. There was no comprehension that kidnapping a 13 year-old school girl at the seashore and dragging her off in a ship never to return seems as horrific an act of terrorism as the beheading of an elderly priest in a church in Normandy. Abductee Megumi Yokota’s long-suffering mother, Sakie Yokota, whom I have met on several occasions, records her anguish in her book “North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter.” She notes the uncertainty of not knowing what really happened to her daughter: “I survived this hardship for 20 years until I found out she had been abducted by North Korea.”
Former Asian Affairs National Security Council Director Victor Cha, in his seminal work, “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future,” recalled a conversation he had in a New York restaurant with then DPRK Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan on the Japanese abduction issue. Kim said, in part: “You want us to put the abductions issue behind us? We tried to put it behind us in 2002. It’s the Japanese that keep raising it. Why don’t you tell them to stop raising it? We accounted for all of the cases, living and dead. Abe knows that. He was there standing next to Prime Minister Koizumi in 2002 when we agreed…And now he is raising the issue for his political gain. We can never work with him.”
But working with Prime Minister Abe, when he returned to power in 2012, is exactly what Pyongyang did. Abe originally made a name for himself by becoming the leading political advocate for the families of those abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. He seemed determined, therefore, to reach a final resolution of the abduction issue when he regained the prime minister’s office.
North Korea’s then new Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had every reason to pursue detente with Tokyo as well, despite the anti-Japanese ideological underpinnings of his family’s regime. First there was the obvious fact that Kim Jong Un was being left out in the cold by the diplomatic thaw between Beijing and Seoul, with Presidents Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping visiting each other’s capitals while Kim could not garner a similar invitation from his Chinese ally.
Then there was the pragmatic desire to re-open the Japanese aid spigot which had been abruptly cut off after the abduction revelations (as well as due to North Korea’s nuclear testing and continued missile launches.) Tokyo had been a major aid donor from the mid-1990s, following the 1994 inking of the Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States. An overview of North Korea-Japan relations, prepared by the National Committee on North Korea, notes that “Japan agreed to help finance the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) project resulting from the agreement, and also donated over 500,000 tons of food to the DPRK for famine relief in 1995-96.” In a round of diplomatic negotiations begun in 2000, “Japan intimated that it would be willing to offer the DPRK an economic assistance package, similar to that offered to the ROK in 1965, in lieu of reparations and upon normalization of relations. (The package would reportedly have been between $5 and $10 billion).”
Kim Jong Un apparently figured that the abductions, conducted in his grandfather’s era and revealed by his father, have little to do with him. With a vision of billions of dollars of potential aid dancing in his head, he authorized the re-opening of bilateral negotiations with Tokyo early in his regime. As recorded in a policy brief I prepared for the U.S.-Korea Institute in 2014, titled “Abe Plays the North Korea Card” the new leadership in Pyongyang and the re-instated Abe administration began unofficial diplomatic contacts with the dispatch to Pyongyang in May 2013 of Abe’s personal adviser Isao Iijima to meet with the head of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Young Nam.
Kim Jong Un apparently figured that the abductions, conducted in his grandfather’s era and revealed by his father, have little to do with him
These discussions reportedly led to a diplomatic breakthrough: the March 2014 meeting in Mongolia between the parents of abductee Megumi Yokota and their granddaughter, Megumi’s daughter Kim Eun Kyung. A proposed follow-up visit by their granddaughter to Japan, however, has not taken place.
Kim Jong Un’s recognition of the importance of Megumi’s daughter as a bargaining chip was demonstrated by the fact that he reportedly put his younger sister Kim Yeo Jong in charge of her, as a former fellow classmate at Kim Il Sung University. Subsequent bilateral Red Cross talks in Shenyang, China were followed by formal intergovernmental talks in Beijing on March 30-31, 2014. Later in 2014 Tokyo announced the so-called Stockholm agreement, a partial lifting of sanctions, after Pyongyang had agreed in a May meeting in the Swedish capital to look further into the abduction cases. However, Pyongyang failed subsequently to report any findings from its renewed abduction investigation. Kim Jong Un apparently could not come up with the required deliverables for Abe, presumably because all of the remaining abductees had died, been killed or had otherwise disappeared.
Instead of the anticipated re-opening of the economic assistance spigot, Tokyo announced earlier this year, according to the Japan Times, “new unilateral economic sanctions on North Korea following its Jan. 6 nuclear test and the launch Sunday of what Japan denounced as a long-range ballistic missile. “The Diplomat reported on February 12 that the new sanctions “ban North Korean nationals from entering Japan. They also ban remittances, except for those less than 100,000 yen ($890) and for humanitarian purposes only. Furthermore, North Korean ships and any ship that has stopped in North Korea will no longer be allowed to call in Japan.”
And now Prime Minister Abe has the legislative means to put a major revision of the pacifist post-war constitution within reach. As the Chinese (and Russians) contemplate an expanded theater missile defense system in the western Pacific, including Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment in South Korea and possibly Japan, and a re-armed Japan with a hawkish dragon lady Defense Minister, they have North Korea’s bellicose posturing and nuclear testing largely to thank. The lasting legacy of Megumi Yokota may, in the end, be a re-armed Japan determined to protect the homeland.
Main picture: Wikimedia Commons