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November 20, 2002

Koizumi's Korean Crisis

Peter Tasker (Arcus Investment)

This article originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum" ( on November 12, 2002; posted here with the author's permission.

This year is the 40th anniversary of a crucial moment in the cold war: the Cuban missile crisis. By attempting to base nuclear weapons just ninety miles off US shores, Russian leader Krushchev was testing the will of the US's liberal young president.

But Krushchev misjudged his man. Kennedy demanded the removal of the missiles, backing his words with a naval blockade. For a few days the two superpowers were at the brink of war, but in the end it was Krushchev who backed down, to be disgraced for "adventurism" soon after. The Cold War continued, but no Soviet leader attempted nuclear blackmail again.

The principles for dealing with hostile dictatorships haven't changed since then: consistency and cool-headed realism. Unfortunately this is the reverse of Japan's posture in its recent engagement with North Korea.

North Korea is hardly the Soviet Union. It is a country of 20 million starving people locked in a time-warp. It would be of no more importance than Chad or Myanmar, if it didn't possess one strategic resource: the ability to scare its neighbours. This it deploys with extraordinary skill. Given the weakness of their position the North Koreans have turned out to be geniuses at the game of power politics. In contrast Japan - an enormously rich country of 120 million, protected by a security alliance with a military superpower has been nave and pusillanimous.

For the leader of a great country to make an official visit to Pyongyang was in itself a significant victory for North Korea. It goes without saying that Kennedy did not conduct negotiations in Havana in front of a jumbo-load of journalists. By turning the abductee issue into a media circus - rather than handling it through hard-headed negotiation - the Japanese were raising the value of their adversary's bargaining chips. Misreading the situation completely, they expected to escort the abductees home in triumph. Instead they were told that most were dead and fobbed off with an explanation that only a fool would believe.

However it had already been decided by the bureaucrats that the summit was going to be a "success". True to form, the Japanese press informed the public that North Korea was sincerely sorry for the abductions, that it had abandoned its military threats, that it was serious about freeing up its economy. And of course that the whole thing had been a massive triumph for Japan's independent diplomacy.

Every one of these propositions was false. In reality Japan's initiative was a disaster. It glossed over security issues of the utmost gravity and risked straining Japan's most important international relationship. It is extraordinary but true that even though the Japanese government had been informed of North Korea's illicit nuclear weapons programme , it was still happy to sign the Pyongyang declaration, the most detailed section of which concerned ways for the North Koreans to get their hands on Japanese cash. Japanese press reports were putting the pay-off in the $10- 20 bn range, equivalent to 20-40% of North Korea's current GNP.

The timing couldn't have been worse. Just when the US was preparing domestic and international opinion for a confrontation with a dictator intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Japan was contemplating buying off a regime who had already developed such weapons. This diplomatic tone-deafness can only be explained by domestic political considerations. Faced with a worsening economy, policy failure, and yet another financial crisis, the administration needed a "triumph." And Japanese diplomats, their reputation tarnished by a series of slush-fund scandals, were eager to supply one.

When public opinion woke up to reality, there was an emotional backlash. Japan had made the mistake of agreeing to a two week trip home for the handful of surviving abductees. Attempting to placate growing public anger, the government now swung to the opposite extreme. By refusing to send the abductees back, thus breaking a state-to-state agreement, Japanese diplomats achieved the impossible. They made North Korea look like the wronged party.

By then the US had broken the story of North Korea's clandestine nuclear weapons programme and was framing a response in consultation with China. Diplomatically Japan had been hung out to dry, and tensions were getting worse. Indeed so caught up were Japan's Asian experts in the deepening North Korean imbroglio that they seemed totally outflanked by China's bold attempt to wrest regional leadership through a free trade pact with ASEAN.

So what happens next? For the North Koreans the first move will be to scare the Japanese public, perhaps through more missile tests. After that has been accomplished comes the second stage an offer to abandon nuclear weapon development in exchange for trillions of yen of aid . The smartest tactic would be to insist that the inspections should be carried out by Japanese inspectors, thus driving a wedge between Japan and the US. It should be an easy matter to give them the run-around for several years, then kick them out on grounds of spying. By then the money will have been spent on upgrading military capability and entrenching the regime.

How should Japan respond? First of all, stop rewarding the North Koreans for their transgressions. All money flows - both official and under-the-counter - should be cut off. Arrest warrants should be issued for operatives involved in abductions, and the network of sleeper agents inside Japan should be rolled up. The return of abductees together with their families to Japan should be a precondition to further negotiation. Secondly there must be no possibility of Japan splitting from the US in the name of independent initiatives. Both countries must show that any further military provocations will meet a tough response. In the end there will be change in North Korea not reform, but revolution. Until then Japan must show the nerve that Kennedy showed 40 years ago.

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