Sheila Smith: North Korea Talks, Iraq Will Forge Japan's Security Policies

Date: 02-20-2004

Movement on abductees crucial to Japan's participation in six-party talks

HONOLULU (Feb. 20) -- How events unfold during next week's talks on North Korea and with Japanese troops in Iraq will forge national consensus on Japan's future security policies, an East West Center specialist on Japan security issues said.

"Events in North Korea and Iraq will propel the Japanese government to refine its overall policy of close cooperation with the U.S. on regional and global security challenges," said Sheila Smith, a research fellow at the East-West Center. "But ultimately we are watching Japan find its way out of its postwar cocoon of self-restraint with regard to the use of its military, and into a more confident yet untested foreign policy realm.

"Japan today exhibits very little hesitancy in tackling 'dangerous' topics, and the upcoming political leadership that is likely to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may be even less constrained by Japan's past. We should watch events in North Korea and Iraq closely, for this is where Japan will forge its national consensus on security priorities for the foreseeable future."

Smith said North Korea remains the primary driver of public threat perception in Japan. The admission by Kim Jong-Il of abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s did more to raise Japanese threat perception and stimulate greater policy debate on Japanese security than any other event in the past.

Japan will join the upcoming six-party talks in Beijing next week. But a separate bilateral dialogue has just been resumed, and Smith emphasized that this effort focuses less on North Korea's nuclear program than it does on the fate of the Japanese abductees who might still be in Pyongyang as well as the family members of those who were returned to Japan two years ago. Koizumi remains firm in his insistence that Pyongyang return these Japanese to their country, and domestic pressure on this remains intense.

"Some movement on the abductees is crucial to Japan's participation in the six-party talks and to the continued domestic support for Koizumi's efforts to strike a deal with Pyongyang," Smith said. "Washington's close support for Tokyo's efforts in this regard will also be indispensable if a collective deal with North Korea is to be struck."

Iraq is less of a security threat but "occupies the Japanese imagination because it is the battleground in which the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force will prove its mettle as a tool of Japanese foreign policy," Smith said. The more than 500 troops expected to go to Iraq over the coming weeks will be the first who represent an independent Japanese decision to contribute military forces abroad.

The performance of the GSDF, heavily covered by Japan's media, is being watched each day by millions of Japanese, Smith said. "What happens if a member of Japan's postwar military dies? Or, perhaps more anxiety-producing, what happens if a member of the GSDF kills an Iraqi civilian?

"The public's reaction, as much as the political leadership's reaction, should such events transpire, will shape Japan's foreign policy debate for decades to come."

Sheila Smith can be reached at smiths@eastwestcenter.orgor at (808) 944-7427.

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center