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Book Review: Japanese Society and the Politics of the North Korean Threat – Seung Hyok Lee

Ford, G. (2016). “Japanese Society and the Politics of the North Korean Threat” by Seung Hyok Lee, Asian Review of Books, 4 September.

Japanese Society and the Politics of the North Korean Threat is a fascinating and well-written study of populism and irrationality in Japan, reminiscent in many ways of Charles Mackay’s 19th-century Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds—illustrated here by the drivers behind the transformation in Tokyo’s attitude to Pyongyang between 1998, 2006 and on to today.

The two dates that bookend this metamorphosis represent Japan’s very different responses to two long-range missile tests by North Korea. The first on the 31 August 1998, a failed satellite launch using a “Taepodong-1” as a platform, took place with no prior warning and flew across Japan with debris landing in the Pacific. The second satellite launch on a “Taepodong-2” on 5 July 2006 had a flight path deliberately designed to avoid Japanese airspace and with the nearest debris falling into the sea hundreds of kilometres from Japan. The first was greeted with virtual indifference, a UN Secretariat press statement and a brief pause in food and financial assistance, while the second saw comprehensive unilateral sanctions from Tokyo. So what changed?

The answers, according to Seung Hyok Lee, are as much to be found in domestic politics as international relations. Generational change saw the leadership of Japan’s political elite shift from a war generation deferential to Washington to the more assertive and self-confident post-war cohort with an independent streak. For them, a new Japan was possible.

Despite earlier false starts, this generation came of age with the election of Koizumi Junichirō as Prime Minister in April 2001, a charismatic reformer who fended off internal opposition from both the LDP factions and the bureaucracy by resorting to a populism that infatuated the general public. Koizumi had been in office for barely a week when his position on North Korea was put to the test. With the EU Troika of Swedish Prime Minister Göran Perrson, Javier Solana and Chris Patten about to fly into Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong Il at the beginning of May, the CIA tipped off Tokyo that Kim’s eldest son Kim Jong Nam was due to arrive with his son on a clandestine trip to visit Disneyland. The view was that Washington wanted to sabotage the EU’s increasingly independent line on the Peninsula, mentored as it was by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. They expected the news of Kim Jong Nam’s eventual arrest to get out and wreck the summit. Instead Koizumi chose to keep the detention secret until after the Troika had departed North Korea and then (comparatively) quietly just expel Kim and his group.

Koizumi was thus inspired to try his own dash for an independent path on the Peninsula. After more than twelve months of secret negotiations, Koizumi travelled to Pyongyang on 17 September 2002 for a summit with Kim Jong Il despite a last minute briefing from Washington on the North’s nuclear weapon programme. The Japanese visit was all too successful, with a promised normalization of relations, economic reparations by Tokyo, a further extension to the moratorium agreed with the EU on ballistic missile launches and, ultimately most telling, an admission and apology by Kim that the North had indeed, as previously alleged, abducted 13—out of a claimed 17—Japanese nationals of which five were still alive.

If Kim thought that the apology would provide closure he was sorely mistaken. Rather it opened a complete can of worms. Koizumi, under pressure from Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary—and current Prime Minister—Abe Shinzō, returned early to Tokyo. Nevertheless, initial public opinion welcomed the summit’s conclusions, although shocked by the admission on the abductees. Within a week this shock turned into anger, and over the following months became a “national obsession” that swamped everything else. This was honed by the press and right wing revisionist groups like ’”Sukuu-kai” (The Rescue Association) pushing a nationalism redolent of the 1930s and positioning the abductions as the central concern regarding North Korea. Koizumi’s very populism became his Achilles heel and he had little choice but to be dragged in its wake.

Despite the five abductees being returned with their children and spouses—including US deserter Robert Jenkins—the furore didn’t slacken but instead hardened into a position left unchallenged and unchallengeable by pluralistic intolerance. Public opinion drove politicians’ demands for action against Pyongyang way beyond, at the time, anyone else at international level, ready to be triggered for the least excuse. The second satellite launch saw Japan unilaterally implement twelve sanctions measures against Pyongyang the very same day, banning the North’s ferry “Mangyongbong-92” from entering Japanese harbors and North Korean nationals from entering Japan, and stopping the flow of capital and trade. When the UN eventually played catch-up, its recommendations lagged some distance behind where Tokyo had already gone.

These events have set the tone for Tokyo. What was initially an independent venture into regional policy by Koizumi ended up with Tokyo’s policy towards Pyongyang being harsher than that of Washington; at the same time it ended up underpinning the drive to set aside Article 9 in the Peace Constitution, and militarize Japan with the deployment of Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD)—ostensively to defend against the North, but that as a corollary does the same against Beijing. Both Tokyo—and Brussels—have been re-educated back to Washington’s line.

Subsequently, the Six Party Talks’ attempts to resolve the crisis on the Peninsula have been subverted by Tokyo’s own attempts to put the issue of the abductees before all else. The Minister for the Abductees believes this is more important than stopping nuclear proliferation, while simultaneously allowing the “number” of abductees to spiral up to 883 as of September 2014. All of them must be returned and none are allowed to be dead, despite some being in their nineties while the North has a male life expectancy of less than 66. The return by Pyongyang in 2004 of the “claimed” remains of the most poignant of the abductees, Yokota Megumi—who was snatched aged 13 in 1977—has proved just as problematic. Tests by Japanese scientists claimed the remains were not hers, leading to a further increase in unilateral sanctions.

The claim seems to have been officially accepted despite “Nature”—one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals—pointing to the inexperience of the scientist conducting the tests and the flawed techniques used, and therefore concluding in a rare editorial intervention “dealing with North Korea is no fun, but it doesn’t justify breaking the rules of separation between science and politics.”

On the basis of Seung Hyok Lee’s book, one can only conclude that if there is to be a solution to the crisis on the Peninsula in the coming decades, it will be one where Tokyo is absent. Here he may just have done the world a favor.