Abe and a Strengthened Japan – By Way of North Korea?

The recent warning of an impending North Korean nuclear test likely stifled any cautious optimism felt in Tokyo after the reconciliatory tone of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, made in the wake of the December 2012 rocket launch. This all-too-familiar pattern of behavior suggests that little over one year after he succeeded his father, the young leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues to steer the ship of state in the same general direction it has been heading since the early 1990s.

Nowhere, besides South Korea, is the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile development felt as acutely as it is in Japan. Although by all accounts the DPRK still lacks the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads for ballistic missile delivery, the country’s considerable arsenal of approximately 900 operational short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (which could theoretically also be used to deliver a chemical or biological attack) ensures that the DPRK is at or near the top of Tokyo’s list of security threats.

Following his electoral victory, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to take a firm foreign policy stance. Even though in practice some of Abe’s initial steps are less assertive than his campaign rhetoric—and can perhaps best be described as “firm but flexible”—signs of a confident and increasingly militarily-capable Japan are on the horizon. The first (albeit minor) increase in defense spending in a decade, the looming possibility of constitutional changes and the recently initiated revision of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines are just three examples. Although the recent deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations will help ensure that Japan’s internal political milieu will remain relatively favorable to a more proactive security role in the Asia-Pacific, it is the DPRK rather than China that will continue to remain the primary justification for continued reform and defense spending once the current flare-up in tensions with Beijing subsides. As Japan attempts to become one of the four tips of the envisioned ‘democratic security diamond,’ the bellicose actions of Pyongyang will provide a welcome justification for additional security expenditures, a tightening of Japan’s alliance with the United States and potential legislative or constitutional changes. All of these would be difficult or even impossible to advocate solely through the prism of China without reigniting tensions and eroding Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing to a dangerously low level.

This is nothing new. The growing threat emanating from North Korea’s nascent nuclear and missile programs during the 1990s prompted the 1997 revision of the U.S-Japan defense guidelines, which expanded the scope of Tokyo’s responsibilities within the alliance; the DPRK’s launch of a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in 1998 led to the deployment of Japan’s first Intelligence Gathering Satellite (IGS) in 2003; and the use of force in responding to the 1999 and 2001 incursions of North Korean spy vessels into Japanese waters, according to Christopher Hughes, represented “an important breach of the normative restrictions on the use of defensive military power in Japan” and created a precedent for similar future acts. Then, as now, such changes may have indeed been induced by North Korea, but their effects are extensive and strategic in scope. Most importantly, although nominally aimed at the DPRK, these changes concurrently strengthen Japan’s military capabilities vis-à-vis China.

The recently announced increase in defense spending, unveiled in the weeks following North Korea’s December rocket launch, was another example of such a measure. Japan specifically singled out the procurement of PAC-3 missiles—a prominent element of its multi-tiered Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) established due to the North Korean missile threat—as one of the reasons for the spending increase. The BMD system is, however, just as applicable to any potential future conflict with China, which possesses its own substantial stockpile of ballistic missiles.

Every North Korean provocation also provides further incentive for intensified security cooperation with the United States. The ongoing revision of defense guidelines is taking place in a period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, and could hardly come at a better time for the alliance. Once concluded, any increase in Japan’s role within the security alliance will likely cite Pyongyang as the primary justification (as was the case after the last modification in 1997), especially if tensions with China subside by the time of the revision’s completion, which is expected about a year from now. This will be all the more likely if the changes lead to the removal of Japan’s ban on collective self-defense—a notable recommendation in the 2012 Armitage–Nye Report—which would be a development likely to raise alarm in Beijing.

Most recently, in mid-January Japan launched a new IGS that will now enable Tokyo to observe any point on the planet at least once within a 24-hour period. Along with the BMD, Japan’s IGS is one of the examples of a system that would have been difficult to justify as a national security necessity given the country’s constitutional restrictions were it not for the North Korean missile threat. Once in place, however, the IGS has become as much an instrument for observing the activities of Japan’s neighbors as it has been for monitoring the DPRK.

As the Abe government becomes increasingly forced to juggle competing domestic interests and navigate between economic, political and security concerns, its widely projected hawkish stance toward China will likely give way to more pragmatic policies (signs of which are already apparent). Barring a drastic escalation of its ongoing dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands with China, tensions with Beijing will continue to simmer but the familiar dynamic of ‘cold politics, hot economy’ will endure. When current tensions subside and when it becomes more difficult to use China as a justification for greater defense spending, the jingoist rhetoric from North Korea will remain the most acceptable and convenient reason for cementing Japan’s place as the northern tip of Abe’s ‘democratic security diamond.’