US and Japan still far apart on North Korea
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)
According to the Japanese press, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came home from his visit with US President George W. Bush a "winner". Images of Bush Jr. and Koizumi driving around the President's Texas ranch, lounging by the pool and participating in a "top secret" CIA briefing, unprecedented for a Japanese head of state, convinced the Japanese media that the Prime Minister was now part of the "club".
As far as major Japanese newspapers were concerned the summit was not all display. The joint declaration on North Korea emphasizing "tougher measures" against the isolated regime if it failed to change course brought hope to a Japan that has been disillusioned with its government's inability to convince the US in favor of Japanese participation in the negotiation process. Even the usually critical Asahi Shimbun praised Koizumi in its editorial of 25 May and called on the Prime Minister to "use the results of this summit as a reference point for determining how to reopen dialogue with Pyongyang". Perhaps most important for the Japanese public was the fact that President Bush spoke of US solidarity on the abductee issue. Furthermore, Bush and Koizumi's commitment to a "policy of no tolerance", which includes a "crackdown" on illegal North Korean cash sources in Japan as well as a tighter weapons technology export ban to the North, is an important initiative that was long overdue.
As far as Japanese news sources are concerned, Koizumi has managed to secure a stronger US commitment to incorporate Japanese demands when negotiating with North Korea. The recent announcement by the Japanese Foreign Ministry (May 26) indicating North Korea's openness to including Japan and South Korea in the talks was understood as a manifestation of this fact, buoying the atmosphere even further. The general consensus in Japan is that the US has decided to take a concerted approach to remove, "peacefully", the North Korean threat. For many, this is Japan's reward for unquestioningly supporting the US invasion of Iraq despite its fictitious rationale.
In the US, however, the reality is different. President Bush and his administration have long been criticized for inaction in regards to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Most analysts and former practitioners (Secretary of State Charles Shultz and former Defense Secretary William Perry), consider Kim Jong Il's regime more threatening than Saddam Hussein ever was. Newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor have reached the conclusion that Bush's team is well able to deal with fictitious threats but incapable of dealing with real ones (Robert Marquand, May 14). Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post concurs stating that Bush simply has no workable option when it comes to North Korea. Even after the summit with Koizumi, Hoagland stated that Bush was simply waiting for something to "turn up" (May 25). The accusation is that the administration is only talking and is not negotiating with Pyongyang.
Judging from prominent newspapers, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, the dominant understanding in the US is that Bush has little control over matters in East Asia. In fact, some, such as Joseph S. Nye, argue that America has little control over any country. After all it couldn't even get Mexico and Chile to vote in favor of a second UN resolution prior to the invasion of Iraq ("Ill-Suited for Empire", Washington Post, 25 May). In such a political climate, few are convinced that Bush has a strategy. In fact, most think the wait and see game will continue while the situation worsens.
The fear, as expressed by a prominent British news source, is that US inaction will prompt Japan to take matters into its own hands by adopting a more offensive military posture. Charles Scanlon of the BBC has written three articles over the past two months on military developments in Japan (March 19, May 15, May 16). All three warn of Japan's plans for long-range attack aircraft, tomahawk missiles and potentially nuclear arms. Reference is made to the three bills adopted recently that give greater military power to the central government in times of emergency, which due to a lack of understanding is understood as a move leading to the development of offensive capability.
While Charles Scanlon's concerns may be premature, the expectation gap between Japanese and Americans is worrisome. Further delays on the part of the US will increase anxiety in Japan, and East Asia as a whole. A perpetuation of such an environment will entrench defensive postures and lead to an escalation of tensions, heighten mistrust, promote irrational decisions and potentially lead to devastating consequences. After considering this, one really wonders what Koizumi and Bush talked about by the pool and on that ranch. Perhaps the chummy environment was too far removed from the cold reality in East Asia. Politicians need to stop playing games and posing for photo ops. Instead, as Jim Hoagland stated, during times like these they belong at the negotiating table and not in front of the barbecue.