Since the beginning of 2017, North Korea has carried out eleven missile tests, eight of which fell into the Sea of Japan (known as the East Sea by Koreans). And while the entire international community condemns North Korea’s nuclear testing, there is no other country in East Asia – short of the DPRK itself – that seems to dramatize the tests to the point of fear like Japan does.
Take the case of Japanese citizens’ spiked demand for nuclear shelters and air purifiers following the April 16 missile test, and the Tokyo Metro’s decision to halt train services following initial reports of the April 29 missile test.
Japan has always held evacuation drills to prepare for natural disasters, but for the first time this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also urged local governments to hold them in the case of a military attack by North Korea.
For Tokyo, these nuclear provocations are the perfect justification for Abe’s ultimate goal of restructuring Japan’s military and breaking with the country’s pacifist constitution, Alexis Dudden, a professor of modern Japanese and Korean history and international relations at the University of Connecticut, says.
Japan’s North Korea policy may be consistent with Six-Party Talk approaches and the international community’s increasingly hardline approach to sanctions, but they are also in pursuit of a long-term vision of Japan as a regional military power.
“What’s going on with the current administration in Japan is almost as if the missile tests are a gift from the heavens for Prime Minister Abe’s absolute determination to restructure Japan’s military posture in the world,” Dudden says.
In an extended interview at the 12th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity last month, Dudden sat down with NK News to share her thoughts on Japan’s policy towards its troublesome eastern neighbor, how the continued missile tests fit into Japan’s domestic military ambitions, and how Japan and South Korea’s historical disputes could affect cooperation on the North Korean issue.
NK News’s participation in the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity was assisted financially by its organizers
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length
NK News: How would you characterize Japan’s North Korea policy?
Alexis Dudden: On the one hand, it is possible to argue that the current administration is simply being a good member of the international community, wanting to work together with South Korea, with the United States, hopefully with China to really bring about a collapse of any possible threat.
But the deeper issue is the way in which the Abe administration is able to use these missile tests to create a sense of absolute fear throughout Japan that Japan cannot rely on the United States alone, that Japan needs to have a much more proactive military.
Prime Minister Abe is arguing that Japan has the right to shoot a missile in self-defense back at North Korea now and that is a very big shift insofar as that that’s part of a broader foreign policy that is unique and particular to Prime Minister Abe’s vision for Japan in the world which is a so-called normal nation, i.e. one that can fight wars abroad.
“The Abe administration is able to use these missile tests to create a sense of absolute fear throughout Japan”
If you look at the map of the territorial claims Japan is making right now, it is a broader effort for a one-world view in Japan to maximize the space and shape of Japan in Northeast Asia and the way they are doing this is with claims to disputed territories with Russia, with Korea and with China.
Because the only part of the planet you can claim for yourself right now, as a nation, is the ocean. Dokdo is Korean, but even by claiming it as Takeshima, Japan can then issue claims for more maximum territorial EEZ.
For most Japanese, it is not EEZ versus anything, that’s Japan’s space. I find fascinating the difference just in the missile tests the other day: the Korean papers and the Japanese papers have the missile on opposite sides of the line.
The South Korean government is not going to protest Japan’s claim right now because these missiles are ruining everybody’s day. They are deeply counterproductive so even if it is South Korea’s water, Korea is not going to protest Japan doing this.
But the problem is if they come closer to Akita as some of them did I believe earlier in the fall, Prime Minister Abe could possibly make the argument that that’s Japanese territory and therefore Japan has been attacked and therefore Japan will fight in self-defense.
If the missile lands just in Japan’s space, and they fire in self-defense… that’s that Japan’s foreign policy towards North Korea is right now. It is making this consciousness that Japan is being attacked.
And when you listen to the statements coming out by Abe, by his Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, is that it is “Japan and Japanese are being attacked, this is an existential threat.” Interestingly, they are not worried about South Korea being attacked or China being attacked, let alone Russia being attacked.
It is not the international community being attacked, which is the only possible approach towards denuclearization and de-weaponization is to recognize this collectively. It is Japan.
Right now, this is a Japan versus Japan moment that, arguably, I as a historian have not seen since the 1860s. The division is that deep over how best for Japan to move forward in the 21st century. It has the military, but the question at the heart of this debate is what is it for?
“They are not worried about South Korea being attacked or China being attacked, let alone Russia being attacked”
It is not a question of being in the 1930s, it is a rigid Japan versus a Japan that is open to Asia. The open-to-Asia we’ve seen before under different Prime Ministers is not limited to the opposition party, but people who would engage with Asia versus people who are turning their backs on Asia. So that is really how he is using the missiles to build this ‘we are not part of them, we are just here and we are allied with the United States” idea.
NK News: In your talk today you’ll be discussing why the UN report on sex slavery and the comfort women was a crucial development. How does this issue affect the two countries’ cooperation today? North Korea uses this issue, as well, to their advantage.
Alexis Dudden: It is really incumbent on the perpetrator nation to take ownership for the atrocities that it has inherited. Japan is not the Japan of the 1930s or the 1940s but it is the inheritor state by the virtue of that even its current constitution, the post-war constitution, didn’t negate the state that came beforehand.
1995 was such a different world, it was full of optimism. Professor Wada Haruki helped write the Murayama Declaration in which Japan took responsibility for causing pain and suffering. These two competing visions of how to address the atrocities of the 20th century are now in full view.
“It is a rigid Japan versus a Japan that is open to Asia”
In the year 2000, literally hundreds of survivors of the sex slave system went to Tokyo for the International Women’s Tribunal to demand that Japan apologize and pay reparations and, in some respects, it was like an oral history sit in – all of these women throughout Asia, including North Korea, [participated].
So the North Korean grandmothers and the South Korean grandmothers; they were just grandmothers. Yes, the North women had to wear Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il badges but there was no distinction among victims by nationality other than their costumes.
Unfortunately vis-à-vis North Korean victims of this particular history, we’ve kind of lost touch in the sense that our avenues of communication have really shut down. So I can’t tell you a precise number that we know, the way we know the numbers of South Korean victims still are alive.
NK News: Do you think South Korea and Japan will be able to put this issue aside to focus on North Korea?
Alexis Dudden: It is impossible to separate history from politics, but it is possible for politicians not to weaponize history. Because using history solely to shore up your own position politically defeats the point of history. We have already seen an absolute about-face from President Park to President Moon.
The effort to publish a state-sponsored textbook that was a solely a hagiography of her father was doomed to fail and nobody would have objected if she wanted to spend a lot of money to publish a biography of her father. But to make that required knowledge and call it state history while ignoring the Jeju massacre… It is symbolic but President Moon’s second act was to negate the state-sponsored history project. History is part of being a politician.
“It is really incumbent on the perpetrator nation to take ownership for the atrocities that it has inherited”
So that’s where there are approaches. Abe is obsessed with history but he is obsessed with shaping the past. I remain optimistic that President Moon sees history as critical to South Korea. And what I’m actually keen to see that he can do is actually give South Korea a discreet history because this Candlelight Revolution has never happened anywhere else in the world, ever.
I think [the Candlelight Revolution] is a definition of what South Korea is, which is a really potentially strong, civically minded, law abiding place in Northeast Asia with a civil society and open society that is rare. Japan is also the other open society and so working together is in everybody’s interests. Otherwise, North Korea and China have no reason to change.
NK News: What is it that Japan is really looking for in North Korea? If they fire another missile, how would Japan react?
Alexis Dudden: I can’t guess that because I don’t know where the missile will land and I really fundamentally don’t understand what Kim Jong Un’s game plan is here because it is just completely dangerous and completely unnecessary.
In a positive light, what Japan wants from North Korea is business: North Korea has a train running through it that you can put stuff on at the docks in Busan and ship your goods to Moscow that way.
There is the fact that you cannot ship goods from this part of the world overland because of North Korea. So that’s what Japan wants from North Korea – to be able to access its ports for trade, to be able to access its minerals for use, which is exactly what Japan used North Korea for when it colonized it. It wants that Korea back, but then arguably, so does South Korea, and so does China.
I can’t understand what Kim Jong Un wants other than attention. And that makes him not only unpredictable but really dangerous because he is playing with fire. And he is playing with fire because he is dropping missiles in the East Sea, that are increasingly close and increasingly, arguably, in Japan’s claimed area which would mean Japan could respond.
They don’t have to but could choose to respond in a way that would then invoke the collective self-defense of the United States. And that is terrifying to consider. Even to say the sentence is terrifying because it can’t happen. But it has become thinkable and that is always in history where things get dangerous.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Perdana Menteri Jepang Shinzo Abe Tiba di Bali by APEC 2013 on 2013-10-06 18:32:50