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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #93: April 22, 2003

North Korea: Japan Snubbed

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)

The Bush administration's choice to "negotiate" with North Korea in Beijing on 23 April signaled a dramatic shift in US policy towards the nuclear crisis in Asia. After insisting on six-way (Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, North Korea and the US) talks as a condition to engagement with the North, Bush has agreed to a three-way formula including North Korea and China.

These talks, brokered by China, should be welcomed as a positive move. However, the reaction in Japan has been mixed and the reason for this sentiment is evident when one surveys how Japan's role in this conflict, and in Asia as a whole, is being understood in Washington. The message being sent to Prime Minister Koizumi from the US is one that relegates Japan's position to one of secondary importance. And perhaps more painfully for Japanese, it is a perspective that elevates China's leadership status in Asia over that of Japan.

This unprecedented level of cooperation between China and the US has been showered with praise in the United States. On 21 April, the Christian Science Monitor characterized the effort as a "great power concert". An editorial in the New York Times (17 April) credited China for having played a key role in making the encounter possible. Bush himself recognized China's contribution by saying that, "China is assuming a very important responsibility, that is that they will … work toward [ensuring] a nuclear weapons-free peninsula" (Reuters, 20 April).

However, Japan's name was nowhere to be found and Japanese officials simply could not hide their displeasure. Koizumi insisted that, "talks would not progress without Japan and South Korea" (Reuters, 21 April). The Washington Post quoted an unnamed Japanese official as saying that, "we are seriously wondering if there will be a second round of talks" in which Japan could participate (20 April). Keio University Professor, Masao Okonogi, summed up Japanese concerns when he pointed out that, "if the North Korean-US relationship starts to move, North Korea will not see Japan as a dialogue partner" (Washington Post, 20 April).

In fact, matters got worse for Japan when North and South Korea announced that they had scheduled a cabinet level summit for 27-29 April, immediately following talks between the US, North Korea and China. Discussions between the North and Japan have been stalled for months and according to the Singapore Straits Times, Japan has been "unable to persuade North Korea to re-open the stalled negotiations" (18 April). The notion that Japan had been "snubbed" in this process was in the news everywhere.

Over the past six months Japanese officials have been working to prevent precisely this outcome. They have been howling for attention by making statements to the effect that Japan was considering "military" reinforcement. Its Defense Minister, Shigeru Ishiba, spoke of pre-emptive strikes on North Korea if threatened. He also stressed the need for Japan to make a transition from passive defense to active defense. National Defense Academy officials have supported these statements by calling for the procurement of light aircraft carriers, Patriot missile arsenals, and mid-air refueling capabilities. These have been supplemented by warnings issued by China-weary US officials including Vice President Dick Cheney who have suggested nuclearizing Japan (Asahi Shimbun, Editorial, 17 April).

However, these attempts to reinforce Japan's presence in the region may have backfired. Instead of Japan playing a leadership role in defusing the crisis with North Korea, the long reluctant China has come out of its shell and has taken the mantle. It is now leading the way towards reconciliation between the US and North Korea while Japan remains mute, at the sidelines. According to the New York Times (editorial, 17 April), China acted to broker the talks in order to prevent an arms race in East Asia from developing and to keep its bid for regional leadership alive. In light of this, statements promoting a more powerful Self Defense Force in Japan, originally intended to persuade North Korea towards negotiations and re-assert Japan's importance in the region, likely promoted China's decision to work with the US, thereby, rendering Japan and its concerns secondary.

According to the Bush administration's definition of leadership, it is clear that military power matters most. This has been demonstrated in the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the focus on weapons of mass destruction. Concern over North Korea and China's involvement in this crisis is also militarily based. Certain senior Japanese government officials have tried to respond to North Korean threats by issuing their own "military" response and conforming to Bush's understanding of leadership. However, in a region bristling with weapons of mass destruction and full of mistrust, the expression of Japanese leadership on these terms has been a mistake. According to the East Asian standard, Japan, both constitutionally and physically, is not a dominant military power, nor should it be. North Korea's military threat should not be tackled by Japan, but rather by the US and China. Rather, Japan should demonstrate leadership on the economic and political fronts by engaging North Korea and providing answers to the humanitarian, economic and political crisis facing Kim Jong Il's regime at this time. Japan's role in this conflict should be to help North Korea make a peaceful and stable transition towards a viable and just economic and political system. Any attempt by Japan to respond to North Korea's military threat in any other way would simply aggravate the problem further and diminish Japan's contribution to a peaceful East Asia.


  • James Brooke, "Japanese official wants defense against missiles expended", The New York Times, 17 April 2003
  • Editorial, "North Korea Blinks", The New York Times, 17 April 2003
  • "Bush sees ‘good chance' to end North Korea arms crisis", Reuters, 20 April 2003
  • "South Korea sees US talks with North going ahead", Reuters, 21 April 2003
  • Doug Struck and Glenn Kessler, "Clashing agendas threaten start of North Korea talks", The Washington Post, 20 April 2003
  • Robert Marquand, "North Korea's latest provocation threatens talks with US, China", The Christian Science Monitor, 21 April 2003
  • Kwan Weng Kin, "Abductee issue set to drag on for Japan", Singapore Straits Times, 18 April 2003
  • Editorial, "North Korea's Intent", Asahi Shimbun, 17 April 2003

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