Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Japan’s Relations with the U.S. and Its North Korean Option

Japan’s Relations with the U.S. and Its North Korean Option

On August 27, 2002, when emissaries from the Bush administration met with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, each had a secret to share. Koizumi informed the Americans of his impending announcement that he would visit Pyongyang in mid-September for the first summit between leaders of Japan and North Korea. In turn, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage revealed that the U.S. was in possession of evidence that North Korea was secretly enriching uranium, in violation of its 1994 agreement with the U.S. and other assurances that it had discontinued all nuclear weapons development.

It is unlikely that either was happy to hear the other’s news. Japanese policy makers may have found it hard to grasp that North Korea was so duplicitous and the U.S. so determined to pressure it to abandon its dangerous behavior that Japan, as an ally of the U.S., really had no leverage to conduct an independent foreign policy. Despite earlier hints that secret talks were proceeding between Japan and North Korea, the news that Koizumi was discussing large-scale economic assistance to the North and would proceed with his trip also had to be disconcerting for the Bush administration as it launched a two-front campaign— with the UN Security Council and the U.S. Congress— for intrusive arms inspections in Iraq as the threat of war to topple Saddam Hussein loomed.

While it appears Japan and the U.S. have since cooperated in dealing with the North, we should be alert to differences and consider Japan’s reasoning in the context of its persistent search for at least the last 15 years to find a balance between sticking with its ally, the U.S., and “reentering Asia.”

To those who expect little from Japan’s diplomacy, Koizumi’s announcement that he would go to Pyongyang to meet the North’s Kim Jong-il came as a surprise. Soon, however, the few observers who reacted with either alarm or delight to what they saw as a rare independent move were outnumbered by those who downplayed the import of the summit. The latter recalled the summit of June 2000 between Kim Jung-il and South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung, when all the hoopla proved ephemeral as the former stonewalled on his commitments. Nor could they recall a time when a Japanese leader made a bold breakthrough at a summit, and after seeing Koizumi fail to deliver on much of his domestic agenda, they doubted he would do so in the global arena. The initiative also appeared to be largely in the hands of the Bush administration, which, after labeling the North part of the “axis of evil,” seemed unlikely to approve a compromise offering it a soft landing. Finally, the main agenda item was the return of abducted Japanese citizens, an issue of great emotional appeal inside Japan but tangential to significant security questions.

After the trip, yet another reason arose to discount the momentary candor of mutual Japanese-North Korean apologies and pledges of future cooperation. When the U.S. dispatched Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly to Pyongyang two weeks later, it appeared that a coordinated approach long urged by Seoul was under way to explore just how far the North would compromise on security in order to achieve its goals for economic reform and political recognition. As the Japanese public became absorbed in the tragic stories of the families of at least 13 Japanese whose kidnapping by North Korea had just been admitted at the summit, eight of whom were said to have died, it paid little heed to geopolitical issues. Once again it seemed that an initiative by a Japanese leader would not bring any dramatic departure from the pattern of reliance on U.S. leadership.

On October 29-30, when Japanese diplomats met with North Korean counterparts in Kuala Lumpur, the same message emerged: the North rebuffed Japan’s interest in discussing its nuclear weapons program and allowing the surviving family members of the kidnapping victims in North Korea to go to Japan.

What many observers have missed is a continuing thread in the evolution of Japan’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, one that leads to a different conclusion about the significance of Koizumi’s trip to North Korea. Looking back, we can identify a streak of failed breakout strategies aimed at giving Japan an independent voice on the global stage. Each strategy has had implications for U.S.-Japanese relations and provides clues about how Japan wants to reshape overall East Asian security. Although unsuccessful, this succession of attempts to take the initiative can be predictive of Tokyo’s next likely moves. The old Left, though fading, has long dreamed of a breakout strategy. The resurgent Right has pressed for it, although often differing on how to proceed. Mainstream as well as maverick Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leaders are tantalized by its potential impact on public opinion. The goal is shared across the political spectrum, even if no single approach has appeal.

Japan’s motive for distancing itself from the U.S. but not breaking the bonds of alliance lies less in any new perception of a military threat than in lingering discomfort over loss of voice in international circles. Many have a sense that, as politician Ichiro Ozawa put it, Japan is not a “normal” state (see Ozawa Ichiro, “Blueprint for a New Japan: The Rethinking of a Nation,” 1994). So far they cannot agree on what it takes to become “normal,” but each time hopes arise for a breakthrough with one or another significant foreign partner the nation rallies around the prospect that it will finally happen. Chances are low that Tokyo could cut a deal with Pyongyang when it remains an outcast for its threatening behavior, but they rise considerably if Pyongyang really determines to bargain its WMD chips for a large economic payoff and recognizes the promise, in an age of unwelcome unilateralism, of multilateral diplomacy at the regional crossroads of great powers. If the North’s choice remains an enigma, the record since the 1980s demonstrates Tokyo’s restlessness as it awaits the right opportunity.


The first option was to reach a deal with Russia to return all four islands, justifying a celebratory mood that the era of victimization was over and justifying a great power partnership that would increase Japan’s leverage. Hints that Japan would pay handsomely (over $25 billion, according to stories early in 1991), intensive wooing of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and a flood of writings about the growing importance of economic power all reflected this option. The payoff looked promising: the world’s fallen superpower would cut a deal with the aspiring superpower that symbolically at least would suggest that they were trading places.



The second option was to become a bridge between Beijing and Washington, leaving Tokyo as the pivot in this increasingly important triangular relationship. After the U.S. imposed sanctions on China for its repression of demonstrators in June 1989, Japanese were optimistic that their greater cultural similarities with Chinese and their preference for gradual change and no open criticism would forge a lasting bond. While the U.S. allowed human rights concerns to shape its behavior, China would appreciate that not only did Japan have the most to offer for its economic interests but also it could associate itself with “Asian values” as a replacement for the archaic rhetoric of socialism and a source of support for a gradual transition different from what the U.S. demanded.

Economic Regionalism

In its search for an international voice Japan counted most of all on a third option: leadership over economic regionalism, although the scope of the region kept changing. Would it be a maritime region anchored in South Korea and Taiwan, economically dependent on Japanese firms? The Sea of Japan economic rim, corralling a desperate Russian Far East, cut adrift without Moscow’s subsidies? A broader region including Southeast Asia and anchored in Indonesia, where the most Japanese official development assistance (ODA) went? Understandably, most blueprints for regionalism incorporated China. This was the crown jewel in dreams of catching up to the EU and NAFTA, but it was an economically dependent country that would be drawn into a web of interdependency regardless of political posture.

Japan-Russia (Part 2)

In the mid-90s it was clear that Japan had failed in all of its early options, but soon the search resumed. Its fourth option was to restart negotiations with the Russians, changing the tone of the talks and considering more compromise ideas. Despite excessive optimism from mid-1997 to fall 1998, this approach was getting nowhere until Vladimir Putin was elected president in March 2000. Then, bilateral talks were transformed by a small group of politicians and Foreign Ministry officials who were prepared to compromise with Russia by securing the return of two islands first and leaving the fate of the other islands uncertain. Later the Japanese media would charge that this group, led by Suzuki Muneo, only had personal gain in mind, but there is no doubt that at least some of the impetus for a compromise with Russia was to gain leverage against China and, in general, raise Japan’s voice as a great power. Putin’s help to Koizumi in arranging for the summit in Pyongyang could be the opening wedge in building a sense of common purpose.

Japan-South Korea

A fifth option emerged when South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung agreed, in return for a written apology over Japan’s conduct in the years to 1945, to promise that Seoul would stop playing the “historical card.” Japanese anticipated that at last they would have one reliable regional partner and looked ahead to co-hosting the World Cup in 2002, when ties could be solidified. As in the case of China a decade earlier, they expected to send the Emperor for the first time to South Korea. This would mark the opening ceremonies and would be the culmination of normalization in political and cultural ties to buttress strong economic ties. Hopes for a free trade area with the South rose to the foreground. Yet Japan’s approval of new middle school textbooks in 2001 rekindled Korean anger over the history issue and scuttled any chance of a visit by the Emperor. If shared success in the World Cup rekindled Japan’s hopes, it was still searching for a lever to pry open relations. In fall 2002 joint concern about being caught in the middle between Washington and Pyongyang could serve that purpose.

The New Regionalism

While most global attention concentrated on the rivalry between Japan and China, some Japanese and Chinese strategists anticipated a new regionalism that would lock the two countries together in an economic community that could serve as a balancing force in the world. Even if China and Japan nervously eye each other, they increasingly appreciate the advantages of combined regional influence. Having hesitated about regionalism through much of the 1990s, Beijing shifted its position and also adopted a “smile diplomacy” towards Japan. Both countries proceeded through ASEAN +3 and South Korea to explore regionalism. The fact that Japanese industry was hollowing out and moving to China as trade kept growing boosted the prospects for economic regionalism. That, in turn, was bound to have implications for political relations and security ties. Japan’s sixth option is to pursue regionalism, engaging China. Unlike the dream of regionalism in the early 1990s when Japan’s leadership could not easily be contested, this option would presumably be a union of equals. When first China and then Japan appealed at the ASEAN +3 meetings in early November 2002 to accelerate talks on free trade, hopes for regionalism were growing.

Japan’s North Korean Diplomacy: a New Option?

After Bush threw down the gauntlet to North Korea by labeling it one of the “axis of evil,” Japan’s prospects for a foreign policy breakthrough inevitably turned to the space between the U.S. and the other countries of Northeast Asia looking for a way to avoid a dangerous confrontation. Security loomed as the region’s foremost challenge as Japan’s secret negotiations with North Korea left it probing whether it could play an independent role in this divisive atmosphere. The U.S. is the driving force; we need to look at its expectations for Japan before examining the response.

The Bush strategy for East Asia calls on Tokyo to turn back the clock twenty years to the time when Ron-Yasu talks first recognized Japan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Labeling North Korea as one of the “axis of evil” harks back to the moral struggle against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. Of all the United States’ allies, Japan most thoroughly embraced a moralistic view of evil Soviets, reflected in a campaign to regain the “Northern Territories” from the country that had unjustifiably seized them in August 1945. With recent media outrage over the abduction of Japanese decades ago driving condemnations of Pyongyang and memories of the 1998 missile test over Japanese territory rekindling feelings of insecurity, Americans have reason to expect shared indignation to lead to a common purpose. Even more so, rumblings about North Korean development of nuclear weapons in defiance of past promises should register loudest in Japan, against which the North’s missiles are targeted.

Many in Japan approached the summit with North Korea hopefully. Aware that Japanese had been skeptical of Kim Dae-jung’s summit in Pyongyang in June 2000, they argued that the North was different. It was more desperate, and it was in a hurry to act before the U.S. attacked Iraq, leaving it first on the axis of evil, and before the South Korean elections, when a less cooperative leader was likely to emerge. The media reported on a secret message from Pyongyang in October 2001 seeking improved relations and suggested that after Bush’s state of the union address the desire had intensified (see Nikkei Shimbun, 9/08/02). Although some claimed that Bush had tried to tie the hands of Tokyo as well as Seoul, they concluded on the contrary that he had driven Pyongyang to turn more to Tokyo (Mainichi shimbun, 9/07/02). Even the conservative Yomiuri shimbun insisted that Japan was not just a messenger; it had real negotiating power enabling it to use its “aid card” as a bargaining chip (8/31/02). Tokyo University professor Akihiko Tanaka explained that Koizumi’s visit could have great significance for East Asian international politics comparable to Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. If the North changed, regional politics would change. A joint resolution similar to that approved by Kim Dae-jung in 1998 would transform historical consciousness at the same time as security issues were resolved and economic cooperation was expanded (Mainichi Shimbun, 9/15/02).

When Japanese heard that Kim Jung-il had admitted the earlier abduction of Japanese citizens, relief mixed with anger. Some wanted to avoid looking back, which could drag them into more polemics about Japanese treatment of Koreans through 1945, while others joined many South Koreans, Chinese, and Russians in yearning for a soft landing for the North instead of a confrontational approach. Yet, increasingly the mood turned negative as Japanese worked through the shock of the human rights tragedies for the families of kidnap victims, especially by trying to get the real stories and following closely the visits by those still alive who had left family members behind in North Korea. On top of these absorbing human-interest stories came news of the North’s nuclear weapons program and a standoff with the U.S.

Again Japanese leaders found what had appeared to be a promising option for a diplomatic breakthrough failing to materialize. If Washington would not talk to Pyongyang until it stopped its flagrant violation of previous agreements and Pyongyang refused to discuss the matter with anybody but Washington, Tokyo had no alternative but to wait on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the North Koreans saw no need to make further compromises on the abduction issue if they could expect no payoff. Yet the Bush administration declared its interest in multilateral diplomacy to deal with this problem, appealing directly to Jiang Zemin when he visited the Crawford ranch in October and to Koizumi and Kim Dae-jung when he met them the next day at the APEC summit in Mexico, to coordinate closely. Had Putin not cancelled his visit because of the hostage crisis at a Moscow theater, no doubt he would also have been encouraged to press Kim Jung-il too. Even if Tokyo was unlikely to lead the way, Japanese could at least see the beginnings of a diplomatic opening.

Although Japanese debates have yet to fix on what the country may seek from active diplomacy with North Korea, there are at least three likely choices. First, a prime minister such as Koizumi would hope for a continued boost in the polls and recognition within the LDP that he has a special personal role to play in an ongoing diplomatic process. Many prime ministers since Nakasone have sought to make a mark on diplomacy that would extend their stay in office and boost their grip over the foreign policymaking process. Koizumi may see this as his one prospect.

Second, becoming an actor in the North Korean endgame promises to boost Tokyo’s standing with Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow, as well as with Washington. It would have to be consulted more seriously with implications for other bilateral matters. With all of the Asian countries concerned about U.S. unilateralism and the U.S. most eager for Japan’s support, Japan stands in an enviable position. North Korea is keen on its economic assistance and may, if it can get beyond the initial standoff with the U.S., see an advantage in making Japan its prime target.

Third, the North Korean option has great meaning for Japan’s own quest for a symbolic end to the abnormal era begun in 1945. After all this is the one country with which there are no diplomatic relations and no progress in discussing the legacy of the occupation era. The North desperately needs an infusion of Japanese money; so it is not hard to imagine that some sort of deal can be arranged with implications for regional security, regional economic integration, and Japanese national identity. Of course, the opening of North Korea holds lots of peril, and a record of failure in exploring six previous options is not a basis for optimism now.

U.S.-Japanese relations are conspicuously shifting from bilateral ties to regional balancing. Washington has grown more assertive in what it seeks from Tokyo, while the latter is focusing more closely on its neighbors in Asia as it decides how to respond. This means taking into account both what these countries consider to be their national interests and what Japan defines as its own interests, separate from those of the U.S. The transformation can be traced in Japan’s response to changing U.S. expectations in its relations with Moscow, Beijing, Taipei, Seoul, and Pyongyang. More U.S. consistency, more active pursuit of Japan, and clearly tilting to Japan will not quench the yearning for balanced ties between Asia and the West.

Japanese sensitivity to U.S. handling of bilateral relations should not obscure real differences in policy preferences. Tokyo perceived Japan-bashing in Clinton’s early tough trade talks; Japan-passing in the search for a breakthrough with China and then the near reconciliation with North Korea in Clinton’s second term; and Japan-wooing under the Bush administration, first for regional and then for global objectives. In each case, the Japanese recognized that the U.S. was pursuing its own national interests and showed concern whether their country’s national interest was the same. Wariness persists whether Washington distances itself too much or draws too close. Always, it is assumed that U.S. national interests as determined by a small group will prevent Japan from maximizing pursuit of its own national interests.

The U.S. cannot succeed by separating Japan from the Asian continent. Its only effective strategy is to work with Japan to develop Northeast Asian regionalism, promote Russo- Japanese relations, stabilizing Sino-Japanese relations, and coordinate with Japan and South Korea in a shared strategy for a soft landing in North Korea should it make essential concessions. The security alliance between the U.S. and Japan shows no sign of dimming the latter’s restless search for another framework in Asia; Washington should see it as a building block to that end, over which it is well-positioned to exert its influence. New Japanese interest in joint development of missile defenses should be understood as a prudent response to the threat from North Korea. Nonetheless, we should expect other steps that will use multilateralism to keep alive Japanese hopes of “reentering Asia.”