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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 10:58 07/26/2007
January 22, 2007

Options for Japan and the U.S. Toward North Korea in a Post-Iraq World

Robert Dujarric (Co-chairman, The Korea Japan Study Group)

This essay is based on Mr. Dujarric's presentation at the January meeting of the GLOCOM Platform seminar, which was held at GLOCOM in Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, on January 17, 2007. His mail address is:

In this essay, I wish to take up an issue that is not often mentioned in Japan, but seems to concern some government specialists in Tokyo now, that is the impact of what is happening in Middle East on U.S. policy toward North Korea. In this regard, the first point that I would like to make is how much U.S. power has been damaged by the Iraq War. That this was a self-inflicted catastrophe is a sad reflection on the entire political and intellectual establishment which, with a few exceptions, either supported or at least acquiesced with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The failure in U.S. policy to deal with Iraq and Middle East as a whole weakens the U.S., and that is very bad news for Japan as a major ally of the U.S.

The second point is that post-Iraq the U.S. Government, Congress, and electorate may well be less willing to intervene overseas. The attack against Iraq was justified on the grounds of the WMD threat, respect for human rights, and creating democracy. Understandably, voters might not believe the government if it invokes the same reasons to deal with North Korea.

The third point to be made is that post-Iraq may be in 2008, but this is not certain. The U.S. forces may have to stay in Iraq much longer. As long as this is the case, the U.S. will be primarily focused on this hopeless war. Then, U.S. objectives in Northeast Asia will be to avoid a crisis either over North Korea or Taiwan, even thought it might mean making concessions to countries that are hostile to the U.S. Some Japanese officials are concerned that China has received a "blank check" from the U.S. to take care of North Korea. Obviously, this is not in Japan's interest.

The fourth point is that post-Iraq the U.S. may well remain concerned and involved in the various Southwest Asian crises, namely, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine-Lebanon, Somalia and others (possibly, Saudi Arabia) that could emerge. Therefore, the U.S. leadership will have fewer resources left to focus on Northeast Asia including North Korea.

The fifth point is that, unless the U.S. resorts to war, which is highly unlikely, China and South Korea have far more leverage over North Korea than the U.S. and Japan, and obviously their policies and goals are not necessarily the same as those of the U.S. or Japan.

The sixth point is that, as has increasingly become apparent during the course of the Iraq War, there is some disconnect between American and Japanese priorities in international affairs. Regarding the North Korea issue, the U.S. has accepted that North Korea is a de-facto "nuclear power," whereas Japan still seems to believe at least in official statements that North Korea should be de-nuclearized. The U.S. is far more concerned about proliferation of North Korea's nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda and other activities than it is by North Korea's own WMD arsenal, which would directly threaten Japan.

All this leads to the question of Japan's foreign policy and strategy. Tokyo should think about the detrimental consequences of Iraq and post-Iraq on U.S. allies such as Japan. In particular, the Japanese government should ask itself what strategy it should follow if the quality and credibility of the US commitment to East Asia diminishes in the wake of the Iraq conflict.

What is interesting about Japan's defense policy for the last 10-15 years is that in some ways there has been drastic change such as deploying the Japan Self-Defense Forces overseas, but there has been virtually no change in defense spending as a percentage of GDP, even though Japan's military spending is, in relative terms, very low. It is amazing to see no significant increase in defense spending, with the possible exception of some new off-budget items, even in the aftermath of North Korea's nuclear test and missile launches of 2006. That would be unthinkable in any other major country. Though the US alliance is by far the best policy for Japan, it would be prudent for Japan to "hedge" against a decline in the quality of the Security Treaty. This would imply re-thinking the defense budget, figuring out ways to strengthen security ties with South Korea, and making Japanese policy towards China more effective.

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