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NORTH KOREA: Japan Has Little Leverage Over Volatile Neighbour

Catherine Makino

TOKYO, May 26 2009 (IPS) - North Korea’s nuclear tests are a grave security concern to Japan and have significantly raised tension in the region.

Most analysts believe Japan would be a likely target if the regime were to ever use nuclear weapons in a major conflict. Even if that scenario never develops, Tokyo is nervous about having an unpredictable and potentially unstable nuclear-armed state as a regional neighbour.

“It absolutely cannot be allowed,” Prime Minister Taro Aso told reporters Monday in Tokyo. “We now face an important stage in which the international community has to act as one. It is a clear violation of the existing United Nations Security Council resolution.”

Japan called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting Monday. The 15-member Security Council was united in condemning North Korea’s recent nuclear test as a “clear violation” of council resolutions and will quickly draw up a new resolution.

“Japan can and should be expected to take a leading role in condemning Pyongyang through the U.N. Security Council,” Weston Konishi, adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation, told IPS.

Japan will likely work behind the scenes to try to persuade Russia and China to take a tougher stance toward the regime, possibly including a new set of economic sanctions against Pyongyang. However, at this point, there are few sanctions left to use against the isolated regime, according to Konishi.

“The test this year is North Korea’s bid to get more attention and bargaining leverage with the United States,” Jeffrey Kingston of Temple University in Japan says. “The Obama Administration has played it cool and unlike its predecessors has not panicked, refusing to play the game by Pyongyang rules. Secretary of State Clinton recently said a resumption of talks is implausible and unlikely.”

China still provides a key economic lifeline to North Korea, so Japan, the United States, and other interested parties may try to convince Beijing to apply greater pressure on Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

The U.N. Security Council and the entire international community – including Japan – have condemned North Korea several times with no impact.

This is not a promising sign for resumption of the Six-Party Talks – convened by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003. It serves as a potent reminder of opportunities Japan missed over several years by pushing denuclearisation efforts to the side, according to Kingston. With Six-Party Talks dead in the water and Japan hemmed in by its own rhetoric and inflexibility, its worst fears about direct U.S.-North Korea talks may emerge.

“In the last year of the Bush Administration Tokyo was angry that it was out of the loop on key negotiations,” Kingston said. “And it was incensed by the U.S. decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, thereby, removing whatever leverage Japan might have had in the abductees ‘negotiations.’

Japanese nationals were abducted by the reclusive communist state during the cold war to be trained as spies.

The key for the Obama Administration is handling this situation calmly and methodically while keeping Japan involved and informed, notes Kingston. The prospects for getting the genie back in the bottle seem remote precisely because North Korea has gained so much by developing the nuclear option and now there are vested interests in the regime opposed to negotiating it away.

“Obviously the situation is serious and undesirable and only underscores how little leverage everyone has, including China over Pyongyang,” Kingston told IPS. “I doubt that China and Russia will change their tune in the U.N. Security Council to the degree that Japan wants. It will once again be another dead- end.”

Kenneth Quinones, dean of research evaluation and professor of Korean studies at Akita International University in Japan, agrees.

“In the minds of its political leadership – especially its generals – North Korea’s brash rejection of international condemnation is neither irrational nor unpredictable. In recent years we have seen a similar cycle repeat itself three times,” he says.

Japan’s recent prime ministers appear to be using North Korea to broaden their popular support by accenting coercive tactics when dealing with Pyongyang, according to Quinones. U.N. Security Council statements, international condemnation and economic sanctions are the favoured tactics.

“Unfortunately none of them have or had any positive or constructive impact on North Korea,” Quinones says. “I would suggest that it is time for Tokyo and Seoul to sit down with Washington, Beijing and Moscow and come up with a strategy designed to induce North Korea back into negotiations – whether they be bilateral with the U.S. and North Korea, or multilateral, an example would be the Six Party Talks.”

This strategy would emphasise negotiations and inducements rather than the current preference for condemnation and coercive tactics like sanctions. Otherwise, predicts Quinones, Japan, its neighbours and the U.S. could experience an intensification of tensions in Northeast Asia that could abruptly explode into a second Korean War.

“War in short would not serve anyone’s interest, and its cost to all considered parties would be astronomical,” Quinones told IPS.

In strategic terms it would mean little for Japan. North Korea has had a nuke and missile program for a long time. The test may or may not indicate that North Korea is making progress towards weaponising a nuke – developing a bomb that can be carried by a missile as opposed to something that is too big or fragile to serve as an effective warhead, said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute for Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University. Even if the North Korea has an effective nuke, the U.S. nuclear umbrella and American conventional forces are sufficient to deter North Korea, according to Dujarric.

“I’m not thinking of an attack on Japan but some clash with South Korea,” he said. “It wouldn’t lead to full-scale war but could still ratchet up tensions at a time when the last thing Asia needs is a political-diplomatic-military crisis.”

There is little Japan can do. The key is the Chinese reaction and, to a lesser extent, the American one. So at the end of the day Japan remains a bystander.

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