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NORTH KOREA: U.S.-Japan Relations

May 15, 2003

How will the North Korea crisis affect U.S.-Japan relations?

It depends on how U.S. policy evolves. Relations between Japan and the United States will remain strong, if Washington continues to talk to Pyongyang and moves toward opening up diplomatic relations, says Ezra Vogel, Henry Ford II Research Professor in the Social Sciences at Harvard University. And there is growing anti-North Korea sentiment in Japan that is pushing Tokyo toward the U.S. strategy to squeeze the North economically, but it's unclear Japan would support harsher measures under discussion in Washington.

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What is the U.S. policy on North Korea?

The Bush administration has said it supports a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. North Korea's neighbors, particularly Japan, China, and South Korea, have urged the United States to resolve the issue through direct talks with the North. The administration says it's considering following up last month's U.S.-North Korea-China talks in Beijing with a new round of multilateral discussions.

What are the possible points of U.S.-Japan contention?

Relations between the two allies could become strained if the United States takes a tougher line on North Korea, which could include cutting off all trade or even launching a strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities, Vogel says. "Japan will make some effort to comply with American requests," he says, but in the long run, military strikes or other extreme measures would be unpopular there. Japan, parts of which lie just 120 miles from North Korea across the Sea of Japan, is wary of supporting measures that might provoke a North Korean military response— and North Korea has said that it would consider sanctions an act of war.

Have U.S. officials pushed a harder line?

Yes. Some Pentagon officials favor bypassing negotiations in favor of tough economic pressure, perhaps including tighter sanctions or a naval blockade on certain North Korean exports. And the Bush administration has not ruled out using military force against the North.

Is Japan's security threatened?

Yes. North Korea claims it has a nuclear weapon. It also has at least 100 Nodong missiles capable of reaching western Japan, as well as Taepodong missiles that could strike any point in the country. It's not publicly known whether North Korea's missiles could effectively deliver a nuclear bomb. An attack on Japan would also put the 48,000 U.S. soldiers stationed there at risk.

Would Japan support tougher action to pressure Pyongyang in the future?

It might. Though Japan has made it clear it would prefer not to tighten sanctions on the North, mounting concern over the Pyongyang's behavior has sparked a debate over whether to pursue a tougher approach.

What is contributing to Japan's concerns?

In addition to the North Korean nuclear threat, many Japanese are extremely concerned and angry over North Korea's reluctance to resolve a dispute over the abduction of 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. Last fall, Pyongyang finally admitted to the kidnappings and returned five of the victims to Japan. But it hasn't allowed abductees' immediate family members still in North Korea to travel to Japan. On May 8, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi hinted that Japan might respond to the North's non-cooperation with economic sanctions. Japan has already restricted the flow of funds to North Korea from people of North Korean descent living in Japan.

What has North Korea done recently to provoke Japan?

In February, it launched a Silkworm anti-ship missile with a range of 60 miles into the Sea of Japan. More alarmingly, North Korea in 1998 tested a two-stage Taepodong missile, which flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific.

How did Japan react?

The test prompted Tokyo to reconsider the military limitations of its post-World War II constitution, which states that the Japanese people "renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force." In recent years, a growing number of Japanese have supported a more assertive role for Japan's 240,000-troop Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Currently, Japan's constitution bars deployment of armed troops outside Japanese territory and limits defensive armaments.

What is Japan's role in helping to diffuse the North Korea crisis?

At the moment, experts say, Japan plays the part of staunch supporter of the Bush administration's approach. The White House has reportedly been listening closely to Tokyo's views, experts say. Japan's help would be sought if the United States imposed a blockade on North Korea's lucrative trade in missiles, drugs, and counterfeit currency— a plan that is reportedly in preparation in Washington.

Do other regional powers support a blockade?

No. South Korea and China oppose the idea. Any effort to isolate North Korea further would fail without their support. Japan is thought to have some leverage over China, North Korea's largest provider of aid, because Beijing fears Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions will spur Japan and South Korea to develop their own atomic weapons. Japan has the financial and intellectual resources necessary to develop a nuclear arsenal and some Japanese have begun openly discussing the possibility of going nuclear.

Is Japan seriously considering developing nuclear weapons?

Some experts say that for most Japanese, including hawkish government officials who support a more active role for the Japanese military, the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is unthinkable. "It's out of the question," says William T. Breer, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Japan is the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack— the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition, the United States, which protects Japan from foreign invasion under a 1960 security agreement, would oppose any move toward nuclear weapons.

But according to Eugene A. Matthews, senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, the fact the issue is being publicly debated at all is evidence that opinions may be shifting. "The idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea with ballistic missiles to deliver those will, I think, probably set off an arms race in that part of the world," Vice President Dick Cheney said in March. "And others, perhaps Japan, for example, may be forced to consider whether or not they want to readdress the nuclear question. That's not in China's interest," he said.

Has Japan ever officially considered building nuclear weapons?

Yes, most recently in 1995, following the 1994 crisis over a plutonium-based North Korean nuclear weapons program. The Japanese Defense Agency produced a 31-page internal study researching the benefits and drawbacks of pursuing nuclear arms. The study warned against moving ahead with a nuclear program on the grounds that it would cost too much, upset the power balance in the region, and undermine Japan's security agreement with the United States.

Is Japan pursuing new self-defense measures?

Yes. Japan is working with the United States on a missile defense system, which experts say could be functional within five years. In March, Tokyo launched its first two spy satellites to gather information on North Korean nuclear weapons and two more are expected to launch later this year.

Also, according to an annual survey conducted by the Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbum, 54 percent of the Japanese population favors amending the constitution to allow Japan to play a more active role in its own security. In recent months, the escalation of tensions with North Korea has fueled support to enlarge the SDF's role beyond offering logistical and medical assistance overseas. Some Japanese argue Japan should reduce its dependence on the United States for security. Following September 11, Prime Minister Koizumi pushed through new legislation that allowed Japan to lend logistical-support troops to the Afghan war effort, the first dispatch of Japanese forces to assist a military action since World War II. China and South Korea, Japan's former wartime colonies, are expected to protest any Japanese moves toward re-armament.

Has there been talk in Japan of launching a preemptive strike on North Korea?

Yes. In January, Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said in Parliament that an imminent North Korean attack would justify a Japanese assault on North Korean missile sites. Japan's constitution permits such self-defense attacks, but Japan's military lacks the wherewithal to carry out the strikes. Vogel says Japan is a long way from having either the government policy or the military capability needed for such an attack. Still, Matthews says, only a few years ago, Ishiba would surely have been dismissed for his remarks; so far, he remains in his job.