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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 11:33 07/30/2007
July 30, 2007

Linkages between North Korea and Iraq for Japan

Robert Dujarric (Director, Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Temple University Japan Campus)

This article is based on Mr. Dujarric's presentation at the July meeting of the Global Communications Platform seminar on July 25, 2007.

East Asian countries have witnessed a gradual decline in US commitment in the region since 9-11 and even more since the launch of the Iraq War. More and more US military, intelligence, and diplomatic resources are being shifted to the Middle East, especially Iraq. Therefore, if North Korea collapses, where would the US get ground forces to augment to the US Forces in Korea? The unfortunate answer is that it would be very hard as Iraq and, to a much lesser extent, Afghanistan, is absorbing such a large portion of US Army and Marine Corps manpower. Until the United States realizes that withdrawal from Iraq is the best option, there will be no solution to this problem. Moreover, even after the US departure, the nefarious consequences for regional stability of Saddam Hussein's ouster will force the US to earmark considerable resources to the region.

Of course, this is not to say that the US is out of East Asia. America remains, by far, the most powerful East Asian power. But the US presence in the region is not where it should be. Moreover, after countless tirades about the evils of Kim Jong-il, the Bush administration finally decided to make major concessions to the DPRK. This surprised Japan's government, which had taken the administration's discourse about the "Axis of Evil" at face value. But though some Japanese may have felt betrayed, the US could not escape the consequences of its self-inflicted Iraqi wound, namely that America must make concessions in other theaters.

Japan's surprise at the US about-face regarding North Korea was due to its government's lack of understanding of the extent of the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq and its impact on American power. Unfortunately, Iraq is not the only crisis facing the US and therefore Japan in the region. Many Americans today are as hysterical about Iran as they were about Iraq in 2003, opening the door for a possible Iranian-American War from which no good will come for the United States. Moreover, Pakistan is in a very precarious situation. A further deterioration of the situation there could create another enormous challenge for the US in the region. These developments have not really registered in the minds of many people in Japan as well as in other East Asian countries, leading to the sense of anxiety, frustration and disappointment toward the US in this region.

What can Japan do about this situation? For one thing, the Japanese have to live with the fact that "solution" of the North Korean problem will be hampered by the situation in the Middle East in the foreseeable future. Needless to say, Japanese influence in the Middle East is minimal, despite its interest in the region because of its dependence on oil from that region. What the US will do in the region will not be influenced by Japan by any means. Japan is very much in a spectator's position, and this will not change, regardless of who wins the next presidential election in the US. If the United States decides to strike Iran, it will not be stopped by Japanese arguments about the importance of Iran to Japan's energy supplies.

Although there is not much Japan can do to improve the situation in general, Japan should engage the East Asian region in ways that will avoid its isolation and help strengthen its relationship with the US. For that reason, Japan will have to set aside the abduction issue and actively participate in the current negotiation process instead of isolating itself from the Six Party Talks process. By the same token, to engage not only North Korea but also South Korea and China, Japan needs to deal with the history issue more efficiently and more thoroughly. This history issue should not be considered a moral or ethical challenge, but rather a strategic one, and the Japanese government should not repeat the mistakes it made regarding the comfort women issue in the future if it wants to play a great role in Asia.

One might ask what Japan could do in the region with North Korea possessing nuclear weapons. While the Six Party Talks have so far narrowly focused on North Korea's nuclear problem, whether North Korea has nuclear weapons or not is a minor issue, because for example the Soviet Union possessed far more bombs and missiles, and North Korea is no more irrational than the USSR was. China acquired nuclear weapons while undergoing the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, but the life went on (for China's neighbors if not for the tens of millions of Chinese killed during Mao's rule). In that sense, the possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea is not as serious an issue as many Japanese might feel. Proliferation is not much of a problem either, because it is clear that North Korea is not supporting Al Qaida in any sense. This is in sharp contrast to Pakistan, where numerous individuals, including members of the elite, are strong supporters for Al Qaida organizations. So, North Korea's nuclear issue is marginal, and it should be relegated to the ranks of important but non vital issues.

Instead, Japan might look beyond the current focus of negotiations with North Korea, and try to help turn the Six Party Talks into some sort of regional security organization for East Asia, comparable to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in Europe. Although the six parties are surely not allies, they can and should meet and discuss common concerns including humanitarian aid, piracy, maritime trade, environmental damage, etc. in the region (other countries might be added to the process, while North Korea's contribution will probably irrelevant in many of these areas). Japan can make a major contribution in these areas and increase its presence and influence to help compensate for the partial power vacuum in East Asia resulting from American policy in the Middle East.

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