A Disillusioned Japan Confronts North Korea

Matake Kamiya

North Korea’s recent nuclear brinkmanship might have alarmed the United States and escalated tension in Northeast Asia, but it has not shocked Japan, already inclined to think the worst of Pyongyang. Japanese attitudes toward North Korea, which had already shifted since the end of the Cold War, hardened still further in August 1998 when Pyongyang sent a Taepo Dong missile flying over Japan. Any remaining Japanese sympathy for Pyongyang was largely dispelled by North Korea’s admission last fall that it had abducted several Japanese citizens.

As distrustful as they are of Pyongyang, however, Japan still clings to its postwar pacifist external posture that seeks to avoid forceful actions that might lead to confrontations with other countries.1 As a result, Tokyo has hewn to a policy of relative diplomatic silence, although it has begun to rethink its longer-term military strategy.

The decision by Japanese officials to downplay Pyongyang’s recent nuclear gambits marks a sharp contrast with the agitated reaction of Tokyo after the Taepo Dong test in 1998. That year, the Diet—Japan’s parliament—unanimously passed a resolution of protest against North Korea; Tokyo refused to resume talks on normalizing relations between the two countries and cut off future food aid to the North.

But in the latest crisis, which began in October when North Korea reportedly told a visiting U.S. delegation about its secret uranium-enrichment program, Tokyo has stayed on the sidelines. The lack of countermeasures is particularly noteworthy because Pyongyang appears to have violated a key provision in the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, signed barely half a month before by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In that document, “[b]oth sides confirmed that, for an overall resolution of the nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula, they would comply with all related international agreements.”2

In an October 2002 press conference, immediately after the U.S. announcement about North Korea’s nuclear admission, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said that “the process toward normalization of the relations [between Japan and North Korea] will never proceed if North Korea breaks its word.” At the same time, however, he emphasized that talk and diplomacy with the North had to be maintained because, “if we do not talk with North Korea and leave it alone, its nuclear development program may advance further.”3 Normalization talks between the two countries took place as scheduled in Kuala Lumpur in late October, although they failed to produce any constructive results.

The Japanese public has also reacted quite calmly to the news of North Korea’s nuclear admission. They have not panicked in the face of a series of provocative actions taken in rapid succession by Pyongyang since last October, such as expelling International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors; announcing its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); restarting its frozen nuclear reactor in Yongbyon; and, according to U.S. officials, acknowledging that it had nuclear weapons and threatening to test or export them. Since the last nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula from 1993 to 1994, many outside observers have insisted that resurgence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program might cause Japan to reconsider its own decision to forgo nuclear weapons. Despite such speculation, however, so far only a small number of extremists have taken such a stance.

Becoming Aware of the Threat

The relatively low-key Japanese reaction to the renewed North Korean nuclear crisis reflects the perception that North Korea’s nuclear weapons development is not an isolated issue but part of a broader “North Korea problem” that includes disputes over nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles (Nodong as well as Taepo Dong), abductions, and the dispatch of North Korean spy ships to Japan’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Since the early 1990s, deep suspicions and misgivings about North Korea have grown in Japan. During the Cold War, the strong leftist orientation of many Japanese journalists encouraged reporting quite sympathetic to Pyongyang. Influenced by such reports, the Japanese people held a relatively benign image of North Korea through the late 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, however, Japanese media reports about North Korea have become more objective. Consequently, the Japanese have become more familiar with the strange belief system shared among North Korean leaders, the extremely oppressive nature of the regime in Pyongyang, and the history of North Korea’s anti-Japan activities, such as the abduction of Japanese citizens to advance its espionage efforts in the 1970s and 1980s.

From 1993 to 1994, when Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development programs were disclosed, the Japanese began to recognize North Korea as a potential threat to their security. Then came the launching of the Taepo Dong on August 31, 1998. The shock that it gave to the Japanese was arguably comparable to the one the Soviet launching of Sputnik in October 1957 gave to the Americans. For most Japanese, the launching was the first occasion in the postwar period in which they really felt their country was being immediately threatened by a hostile external power. Although Japan had confronted Russian (Soviet) and Chinese military power for decades, most Japanese never perceived these threats as immediate, given their protection under the U.S. military umbrella.

In the case of the Taepo Dong, however, the very fact that North Korea launched a missile that actually flew over the main island of Japan and splashed down into the Pacific Ocean was enough to send shivers up just about every Japanese spine. The possibility that North Korea, viewed by most Japanese as the most enigmatic and unpredictable country in the region, had the capability to attack Japan with its ballistic missiles was horrifying. The North Korean spy ship incidents that took place in March 1999 and in December 2001 further intensified the perceived threat from Pyongyang.4

From Goodwill to Reciprocity

Despite this series of provocative actions taken by Pyongyang against Japan, Tokyo maintained a conciliatory posture toward the North until the end of 2000. It hoped that a patient show of goodwill would encourage Pyongyang to negotiate the long list of issues between the two countries, including the normalization of diplomatic relations. At the same time, the Japanese government maintained its assistance to North Korea, particularly food aid, without receiving anything in return from Pyongyang. Only in the short period after the Taepo Dong incident did Tokyo take any retaliatory measures for Pyongyang’s provocative actions toward Japan.

By the end of 2000, however, there was growing sentiment among foreign policy elites in Tokyo questioning the validity of such an approach toward Pyongyang. Arguing that Japan had received little in return for its cooperation with North Korea, Tokyo started to pursue a new policy line toward the country based on the principle of reciprocity. The Japanese government made it clear that, if Pyongyang wanted to obtain food and other forms of assistance, it first had to demonstrate in concrete terms its own goodwill toward Japan.

Further fueling Tokyo’s hard-line approach was the grave impact of the first ever Japan-North Korea summit meeting on September 17, 2002. Before Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang, many in Japan were hopeful about the possibilities for improving relations between the two Asian countries. Many experts argued that North Korea—eager to normalize diplomatic relations with Japan in order to avoid being targeted by the United States as a “second Iraq” and to obtain desperately needed economic assistance—might be prepared to make substantial concessions on the pending problems between the two countries. These included resolving questions about whether or not Pyongyang had endorsed the abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

Kim Jong Il actually took some steps at the summit meeting with Koizumi that appeared to address Japanese concerns and certainly astonished North Korea watchers all over the world. He admitted that his country had abducted 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s and made a verbal apology for doing so. He also acknowledged sending spy ships into Japan’s territorial waters and EEZ and promised that such incidents would not recur.

Although Kim obviously expected that such confessions would greatly improve Japanese sentiment toward his country, the plan actually backfired. The Japanese public was outraged by Pyongyang’s explanation that eight out of 13 abductees had died at quite young ages.5 Pyongyang’s response to Tokyo’s demand to provide detailed information about those eight people, including the causes of their death, added fuel to the fire. Most Japanese believed that North Korea had tried to deceive them by providing highly questionable information.6 Japanese anger toward North Korea grew even further when Pyongyang declared at the normalization talks in late October that the abduction issue had already been solved; it is widely believed in Japan that tens or hundreds more Japanese were actually kidnapped by the North in the past.

The resurgence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, therefore, took place at a time when the reputation and credibility of North Korea among the Japanese public had already hit rock bottom. At the same time, North Korea’s previous nuclear and missile threats might have irritated Tokyo, but they ironically and unintentionally have also given Japan confidence that Pyongyang, despite its harsh rhetoric and confrontational postures, is effectively deterred by the U.S.-Japan alliance. Tokyo has grown accustomed to the way Pyongyang speaks and behaves. In other words, the Japanese have acquired immunity to North Korean provocations. Consequently, even the recent warning issued by Pyongyang that Japan should recognize that it is “within the striking range of [North Korea]” and should behave well7 barely induced any reaction from the Japanese public.

Consequently, the Japanese public has strongly demanded that the government not make any concession on the nuclear issue, as well as on abductions, because they do not view North Korea as a trustworthy negotiating partner. Reflecting these views, the Koizumi administration has repeatedly emphasized that there will be no normalization of relations and no economic assistance to the North until the nuclear and abduction issues are solved. This policy line is similar to the Bush administration’s stance that the United States is ready to consider taking a “bold approach” toward Pyongyang but only after it verifiably abandons its nuclear weapons programs.

Japan’s Interests

There are, however, at least two significant differences between Japan’s North Korea policy and that of the United States. First, although aiming earnestly at the termination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Japan has more to fear from a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. Separated from the peninsula by the sea, almost the entire territory of Japan is believed to be within the range of Pyongyang’s Nodong missiles. If the United States uses military forces against North Korea, Japan is unlikely to remain safe.

The Koizumi administration understands that U.S. military pressure is necessary both to deter North Korea and to achieve a peaceful solution of the current nuclear crisis. At the outset of the Iraq war in March 2003, Koizumi maintained that the U.S.-Japan alliance “functions as a strong deterrent force against a country which is ready to attack Japan. Japan should not forget about it.”8

At the same time, however, the Japanese government does not want to see the United States rush to resolve the crisis militarily; Tokyo is particularly worried that the United States, inspired by its success in Iraq, might seek regime change in Pyongyang. As the final report of the Task Force on Foreign Relations for Prime Minister Koizumi maintained, the prime objective of Japan’s North Korea policy is not to overthrow Kim Jong Il’s regime but to persuade Pyongyang to stop taking harmful actions externally and to initiate gradual reform of its political and economic system domestically.9

Second, although Washington remains focused on the nuclear issue, the Japanese government wants the nuclear and abduction issues resolved simultaneously. Despite repeated assurances by the United States that it will raise the abduction issue when it has contact with North Korean authorities, Tokyo is worried that the United States might decide to sacrifice the abduction issue if North Korea shows a willingness to make significant concessions on the nuclear issue.

Recognizing these differences, the Japanese government has insisted that the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development be discussed within a multilateral framework that includes Japan. On an assumption that the North desperately needs Japan’s money to escape from the current economic crisis, Tokyo judges that it can utilize economic assistance as its negotiating leverage against Pyongyang. It has been widely assumed among the Japanese that Japan, at some stage of the process to normalize relations with North Korea, will have to give Pyongyang a substantial amount of economic assistance as a quasi-reparation for Japan’s colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, as it did to South Korea in the 1965 normalization treaty. Until the Koizumi-Kim Jong Il summit last September, there had been a dispute between Japan and North Korea on the timing of such assistance. North Korea demanded that the colonial settlement precede the normalization of relations. The Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, however, clearly stated that Japan’s economic cooperation to the North would be provided only “after the normalization.”

Washington’s decision to start trilateral talks with only Pyongyang and Beijing was, therefore, disappointing to Tokyo, despite official support from the Japanese government. Taku Yamazaki, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, even complained that “a multilateral talk without Japan and South Korea cannot be accepted.”10 There is a widespread consensus in Japan that the trilateral framework must be expanded to include these two countries as soon as possible.

Reconsidering Passive Defense

Pyongyang’s attempt to obtain nuclear weapons, together with its earlier acquisition of ballistic missile capabilities, has made it obvious to Japan that its long-cherished passive defense posture poses a severe handicap in dealing with a country such as North Korea.

Throughout the post-World War II period, Japan has maintained the remarkably self-restrained military posture of “exclusively defensive defense.” Within that framework, Japan has deliberately eschewed long-range power projection capabilities so that its Self-Defense Forces remain essentially nonthreatening to other countries. Australian security experts Andrew Mack and Pauline Kerr argued in 1995 that only Japan’s military posture fit closely with the precepts of “non-provocative defense” in the Asia-Pacific region at that time.11

Today, the Japanese people still want to maintain the passive defense posture in which they take great pride. As long as Japan sustains that posture, however, the offensive capability of the Self-Defense Forces will remain severely limited, and Japan by itself will never be able to deter, prevent, nor retaliate against attacks by enemies who are armed with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The further the North Korean nuclear weapons program develops, the more difficult this dilemma becomes for Japan. Going nuclear will not be a desirable way for Japan to resolve this dilemma, but some Japanese security experts and politicians have started to discuss possible ways to modify Japan’s exclusively defensive defense posture by strengthening its conventional weapons capability without provoking its neighbors. Under the traditional posture, the Japanese government has interpreted Japan’s postwar “Peace Constitution” to allow the country to use military force only to exercise the right of self-defense to the extent minimally necessary to repel aggressors. Japan has limited its defense efforts within the realm of defense in the narrowest sense and has relied on the United States for offensive and deterrent capabilities.

Since the Taepo Dong firing in 1998, however, there has been a growing, although still small, voice among the Japanese security circle that Japan should not shy away from facing up to the reality that effective defense requires some offensive capability. Shigeru Ishiba, director-general of Japan’s Defense Agency, has recently mentioned that it is worthwhile for Japan to consider an option to obtain the capability to attack ballistic missile sites of hostile countries,12 but Koizumi has expressed his unwillingness to do so.13

Although the majority of the Japanese people seem to be reluctant to change the basic framework of Japan’s decades-old “exclusively defensive defense” security posture in the near future, the public support for Japan’s acquisition of its own reconnaissance satellites, as well as for Japan’s participation in joint research on theater missile defense with the United States, increased suddenly and sharply after the 1998 Taepo Dong shooting. Japan successfully launched its first reconnaissance satellite March 28, 2003.

In the face of press reports that North Korea admitted at the U.S.-North Korea-China trilateral talks from April 23 to April 24 in Beijing that it already possesses nuclear weapons, the Japanese “government has reacted [to this news] cool-headedly,”14 and the Japanese public has also stayed calm. The long-term effect of the current North Korean nuclear crisis on Japanese security policy, however, could be significant, giving further impetus to shifts in Japan’s defense posture.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of the National Defense Academy of Japan or of Japan’s Defense Agency.

1. Thomas U. Berger, “From Sword to Chrysanthemum: Japan’s Culture of Anti-Militarism,” International Security, 17, no. 4 (Spring 1993).

2. “Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration,” September 17, 2002.

3. Yomiuri Shinbun, October 18, 2003.

4. The details of North Korean spy ship activities against Japan remain a mystery. It has been rumored for a long time that such ships frequently intrude into Japan’s territorial waters and EEZ in order to gather information, replace spies stationed in Japan, smuggle drugs into Japan, and even abduct Japanese citizens. In March 1999, two vessels that were suspected to be spy ships from the North were found off the coast of Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture and off the coast of Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture. It was confirmed that the ships, which the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and the Maritime Self-Defense Force chased but failed to capture, ran to a North Korean port. In December 2001, another North Korean spy ship that was heavily armed was found in Japan’s EEZ in the East China Sea. After being chased for many hours, it exchanged fire with and was sunk by the JCG patrol boats.

5. According to the explanation provided by North Korea, four abductees died in their twenties, two in their thirties, and two in their forties.

6. For example, according to North Korea, most of the eight people died due to unnatural reasons such as a car accident, drowning, carbon monoxide poisoning, and suicide. Moreover, among errors with regard to birth dates and home addresses (in Japan) that were found in the death certificates of those people that were handed from Pyongyang to Tokyo, many coincided with inaccurate information that the Japanese side mistakenly gave to North Korea several years earlier.

7. “KCNA Urges Japan to Behave With Discretion,” Korean Central News Agency, April 15, 2003.

8. Yomiuri Shinbun, March 21, 2003.

9. Taigai Kankei Tasukufosu, “21 Seiki Nihon Gaiko no Kihon Senryaku,” November 28, 2002, p. 13.

10. Nihon Keizai Shinbun, April 17, 2003.

11. Andrew Mack and Pauline Kerr, “The Evolving Security Discourse in the Asia-Pacific,” Weapons Proliferation in the 1990s, ed. Brad Roberts (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), p. 404.

12. Yomiuri Shinbun, March 27, 2003, evening ed.

13. Yomiuri Shinbun, March 28, 2003.

14. Asahi Shinbun, April 25, 2003, evening ed.

Matake Kamiya is an associate professor of international relations at the National Defense Academy of Japan.