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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (October 6, 2003)

Koizumi Plays his North Korean Trump

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

After being convincingly re-elected as his party's President, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi wasted little time in reshuffling his Cabinet. The fresh lineup is skillfully designed to maximize the party's electoral appeal as well as offering olive branches to Koizumi's factional adversaries. Significantly, the new team also signals a hardening in the administration's attitude towards North Korea and places the rogue state at the heart of Japan's foreign policy agenda. The new emphasis is almost certain to diminish the importance of other key international issues, and this is arguably one of the move's primary objectives.

Koizumi has carefully regenerated his Cabinet with lawmakers known for their hard-line positions on North Korea. So potent is this new formula that within its inaugural week bitter clashes erupted between the two countries at the United Nations General Assembly.

The chief drumbeater for the new Cabinet hawks is Shinzo Abe, who takes on the post of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General. This is a high-profile position that ranks Abe as the party's number-two man after the PM. Immediately upon taking up his new post, Abe hit the airwaves with a series of straight-talking interviews in which he outlined the government's more robust approach to the Stalinist state.

In his previous role as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Abe made his name by championing the rights of the Japanese abductees released by North Korea. He also hit the headlines with his scathing attacks on Foreign Ministry bureaucrats who he considered were too soft on Pyongyang. These initiatives won him immense popularity with the public.

Abe's meteoric rise is the most striking feature of Koizumi's revamped squad. He is a relatively youthful 49-year-old who was only elected to parliament in 1993. These credentials would normally not be enough to earn him a senior party post, but the popularity he accumulated through bashing North Korea allowed Koizumi to catapult him into the Cabinet. His excellent political pedigree has also enhanced his standing. Abe is the son of a former foreign minister, Shintaro Abe, and the grandson of a former prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi.

Lining up behind Abe are the new Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Shoichi Nakagawa, and the new Environment Minister, Yuriko Koike. Both have impeccable track-records as hardliner in their dealings with Pyongyang. This trio reinforces the tough-talking Defense Agency chief, Shigeru Ishiba, who retained his post in the reshuffle. Ishiba has proposed that under certain circumstances, Japan should have the right to conduct pre-emptive strikes against North Korea. The combined force of these new voices has already drowned out the more conciliatory tones of the Foreign Minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, who had sought dialogue with North Korea over the abduction issue.

Koizumi has several good reasons for this policy shift, the most straightforward being that the move is highly popular with the public. A less obvious but equally important motive is that the increased attention given to North Korea provides a means for lessening the impact of the other pressing, and potentially damaging, foreign policy issue: postwar Iraq.

It is worthwhile briefly examining the current predicament of British Tony Blair as it illustrates the sound logic behind Koizumi's diversionary strategy. Both prime ministers solidly supported the Iraq invasion, but their fortunes have been very different.

Pre-conflict, Blair was the dominant force in British politics. Today, opinion surveys show that support for his premiership is hemorrhaging and is now at all-time lows. Pollsters say the electorate no longer trusts him because of Iraq. The most recent poll shows that 53% of the British public believes the Iraq war was unjustified with just 38% believing it was right. On the eve of his party's annual conference a poll of party members found that 60% believe Blair was wrong to sanction war against Iraq and more than 80% believe he exaggerated the case for war either deliberately (37%) or unintentionally (44%). Support for Blair's Labour Party is at rock-bottom. In a recent by-election his party was defeated by a staunchly anti-war candidate, suffering a massive 28% swing against them in one of their safest seats. Iraq has split his party and derailed his premiership. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of people in his own party are demanding that Blair resign.

The American-led invasion of Iraq was also deeply unpopular in Japan, yet Koizumi's approval ratings were not adversely affected. This feat was achieved by masterfully utilizing North Korea as a means for deflecting public unease about Iraq. It now appears that the same tactic is being deployed again, this time to reduce potential damage arising from an increasingly unpopular postwar Iraq policy.

Washington has been pressing Tokyo to commit troops to Iraq, something that is too risky to contemplate with an anticipated general election due in November. However, once the election is over, troops will probably have to be dispatched. Emphasizing the threat posed by North Korea offers a means for reducing some of the public disquiet over possible Japanese troop casualties in Iraq.

In the coming months, Koizumi faces some difficult decisions on Iraq, especially if he commits troops on the ground. The mounting woes of the once mighty Tony Blair highlight the extreme perils this issue can generate and explains why it makes good political sense to concentrate the public's mind on the dangers posed by a bellicose North Korea. Whether this strategy is successful or not may eventually determine Koizumi's own political fate.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 1 October 2003,, and is republished with permission.)

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