Mindful of the stakes involved for Japan, the Japanese government was quick to enhance its attempt at diplomacy with North Korea immediately following news of the death of Kim Jong-Il last month. On Christmas Day, Japanese Prime Minister Noda paid an official visit to China to meet with Prime Minister Wen in an attempt to improve bilateral ties while at the same time discussing security-related concerns arising from the murky transition to power of Kim Jong-un. The stakes for Japan, which has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and for which recent tests of long-term missiles by North Korea have flown over Japanese territory, are especially high.
Relations between the two countries have been unstable since World War II. Following the announcement of Kim's death, the Japanese government immediately ordered the country's self-defense forces and coast guard to enhance surveillance of the waters dividing Japan from the Korean peninsula -- a defensive shift in Japan's bilateral posture. During Noda's meetings in Beijing, Chinese President Hu and Noda formally agreed to coordinate and strengthen ties to ensure regional security during North Korea's power transition. Had it not been for the holidays, the Japan/China joint declaration of "common interests" over "regional security" would have drawn more attention from western powers, especially given that it was a Japanese-led initiative.
However, Japan's swift and bold steps on the North Korean issue may yet prove to be unwise in the near term. Considering the relative inexperience of the Noda administration in foreign policy, as well as Japan's ongoing domestic concerns, choosing to deal with North Korea by directly engaging its most important ally may become problematic. Given North Korea's penchant for acting as a petulant child, Kim Jong-un (and his minders) may lash out at Japan for attempting (from their perspective) to sway China away from North Korea and toward Japan. For its part, China is unlikely to change its basic diplomatic posture in the region -- certainly not in the near term. The last thing it presumably wants is for the 'new' North Korean regime to wonder whether it can continue to count on China's support.
It is worth noting that days before Japan's initiative with China, Japanese Foreign Minister Gemba met with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and announced a predictable united front, citing a "common interest" in encouraging a peaceful transition in the rogue state. It is commonplace for Japan to secure Washington's consent in many aspects of its regional foreign policy -- its engagement with Beijing was no exception. But Japan's new orientation toward bilateralism signals an increasingly activist foreign policy, particularly in the case of North Korea, where it must believe it has little to lose by attempting to influence the resumption and outcome of Six Party talks.
By taking the initiative in setting up an apparent united front with Washington and Beijing, in the longer term, Japan might well succeed in jumpstarting regional dialogue and perhaps establish itself as a stabilizing influence on the Korean Peninsula, if only for its own self-interest. Of course, that remains to be seen. Although Japan is showing signs of wanting to cast aside its typical risk averse approach to foreign affairs, it is constrained by Article 9 of its constitution, which prevents Japan from any projection of military power beyond self-defense. Any deployment of its security forces can therefore only be made within a few nautical miles of its territorial waters.
For its part, China is likely to prefer the status quo, and in all likelihood, North Korea will prefer no significant change in regional political dynamics in the short-term. China has shown no willingness to share information about its diplomatic relations with North Korea -- an idea Noda floated and Beijing flatly rejected. Japan and the U.S. may therefore need to consider alternatives if they are determined to restart Six Party talks.
The resumption of talks will ultimately depend on whether the North feels secure enough to project its perception of influence, stability and strength over South Korea, and the rest of the region. If the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China send encouraging signals to North Korea by continuing food aid or making welcome overtures, the young Mr. Kim may find it hard to refuse the resumption of talks in an effort to secure even more concessions from the other parties. This would require a fundamental shift in the position of South Korea, which has drawn a firm line against resumption of the Sunshine Policy for the time being, and as long as Mr. Lee is in power in the south, overcast skies are likely between the two Koreas.
Although security concerns against North Korea are certainly well founded, the possibility of near term military conflict in the region appears to be slight, given that all sides will be on their best behavior in an effort to avoid any incidents that may provoke a nationalistic response from Mr. Kim and his minders. A period of calm should continue over the next few months while the government and military rally the country behind the new Supreme Leader.
In all likelihood, in the absence of any meaningful options, and without the support of China to pursue an alternative path, Japan will simply choose to live with its dangerous neighbor for the time being, as it has in the past. While the Noda administration has much to gain by maintaining its newly activist foreign policy, the truth is that the U.S. and regional powers are unaccustomed to thinking of Japan as an assertive player in foreign affairs, and Japan can in reality do little more than maintain an engaged posture. However, it is possible that such an approach may spur other powers in the region to reconsider their own entrenched stance toward North Korea, in which case, Japan's approach will have served a useful purpose.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consultancy based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the forthcoming book, Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Edsel Tupaz is founder and managing partner of Tupaz and Associates, and a professor of international and comparative law, based in Manila. The authors thank Joan Martinez and Christina Shi for their comments.
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