Abe’s South Korea challenge

Why democracy on the Peninsula presents a problem for Japan

Christian Wirth, Sebastian Maslow

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

23 May 2017

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s push for peace on the Korean Peninsula threatens to undercut Shinzo Abe’s framing of North Korea as a paramount danger to Japan and the international community, write Christian Wirth and Sebastian Maslow.

Despite condemning North Korea’s most recent missile launch as ‘reckless and irresponsible’, and ordering a ‘stern response’, South Korea’s newly-elected president Moon Jae-in will strive to engage his bellicose neighbour. This course of action is not only a popular demand, it also represents Korea’s only way out of the impasse that could otherwise end in all-out war.

Even if US President Donald Trump may rethink his earlier statement and miss out on a chat with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over a burger, Moon’s reviving of the so-called Sunshine engagement policy has the potential to undercut Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s framing of North Korea as a paramount threat to the security of Japan and the international community, to be deterred by all available means.

Moreover, the victory of South Korean democracy casts Abe’s deal with the now imprisoned ex-president Park Geun-hye to ‘finally and irreversibly’ close the chapter on the so-called comfort women in a dubious light. The Abe government’s continuing insistence on the removal of the statue that faces the Japanese embassy in Seoul as a reminder of Tokyo’s historical responsibility is particularly controversial, and displays a fundamental misjudgement of the political circumstances. Scrutinising Park’s political legacy, the status of the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement may also become subject to debate again, thus further tarnishing Abe’s achievements.

More than complicating diplomatic ties, however, the de facto regime change in South Korea could affect Abe’s domestic political agenda. While objectively highly desirable, détente and peace on the Korean Peninsula would nevertheless remove one of the main enablers for the Liberal Democratic Party’s and the Prime Minister’s longstanding efforts to ‘normalise’ Japan.

More on this: The problem of Japanese pacifism

For years, the North Korea threat has been used by Japanese policymakers to mobilise populist support to revise the pacifist constitution and restore a militarily strong nation. Since the 2002 revelations that North Korea had kidnapped several Japanese citizens during the Cold War, right-wing politicians, powerful lobby-groups, and the mass media have been fanning public outrage over the abduction issue for their own purposes.

The North Korea threat came to epitomise the crisis of Japan’s post-war regime, and newly empowered the ultra-conservatives led by Abe. Riding on Washington’s designation of North Korea as a rogue terrorist state, and part of the ‘axis of evil’, these hardliners reversed Japan’s North Korea engagement course. At the same time, they pushed fundamental security political changes such as Tokyo signing up to the US-led ballistic missile defence shield and its steady moving towards so-called collective self-defence military operations overseas.

Thus, deeply woven into Abe’s domestic political agenda, the recent missile and nuclear crisis stirred a flurry of unprecedented activism. Referring to Kim Jong-un’s suspected assassination of his elder brother Kim Jong-nam with VX nerve gas and the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, Abe publicly speculated about North Korean sarin gas-tipped missiles targeting Japan. In doing so, he played with the deeply ingrained memory of the Aum sect’s fatal nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Abe’s announcement that Japan has been preparing for the large-scale evacuation of its nationals from South Korea; the central government’s issuing of guidance for the event of a North Korean missile attack; the news headlines that several municipalities conducted civil defence drills; and the brief interruption of the Tokyo metro and some bullet trains during a North Korean missile test – all brought the ostensibly imminent danger of attack to everyone’s home.

More on this: Solutions to North Korea beyond sabre-rattling

Buoyed by strategists’ and politicians’ calls for the hastened acquisition of preventive strike capabilities on North Korean ‘enemy bases’, the Abe government seeks to seize the opportunity inherent to the crisis to push constitutional revision. At first sight, the announcement which Abe made on 3 May, the peace constitution’s 70th anniversary, appears harmless: a long overdue adjustment of Article 9 to acknowledge the existence of Japan’s armed forces. If it were not for the sweetening promise of free tertiary education, and if it did not come on the background of the LDP’s pushing for a far more extensive constitutional revision reminiscent of the pre-war Meiji era, there would be no need for alarm. Yet, Japan’s ‘proactive pacifism’ can be seen as doublespeak for the preparation of war.

The line between those who engage in national security rhetoric out of genuine fear and those who attempt to politically capitalise on a deepening sense of crisis is not only a fine one, but it is also blurred easily. Amplifying foreign threats for domestic purposes is not unique to Japan. The case of South Korea should serve as a warning.

For decades, the North Korea threat served authoritarian South Korean regimes as a tool for rallying support, to supress dissent, and to delay the complete democratisation of the country.

Even under the most recent Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, the National Security Law and anti-defamation legislation continued to be used for silencing opposition. In 2015, the Park government also sought to strengthen South Koreans’ allegiance to the state through the centralisation of history textbook-writing and the adoption of new anti-terrorism legislation. Some 20 years after the end of the Cold War, criticising the government could still result in being labelled and prosecuted as a North Korea supporter.

As the case of the now impeached president has vividly demonstrated, governments that focus on foreign threats instead on solving pressing domestic problems, ultimately, cause political instability and endanger economic prosperity. People in South Korea came to realise that a hawkish approach to the North Korea problem will lead to nowhere but war, and that preparation for war, whether pursued in earnest or only as a means for political manoeuvring, wreak havoc on a country’s system of governance.

Recognising the new realities in South Korea, including the people’s desire for North-South reconciliation, will require considerable flexibility on the part of Japan. Yet, the new normal is not only a test for the Abe government’s willingness to genuinely further peace and human rights. Pragmatic approaches to both South and North Korea will also reduce the prospect for Japan’s diplomatic isolation in the wake of Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a signature policy of the Abe administration – while at the same time voicing critical views on Tokyo’s trade and monetary politics and concluding a trade deal with China.

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