International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

25 February 2016

Japan is uniquely placed to increase the pressure on North Korea, Stephen R Nagy writes.

When North Korea tested a nuclear device on 6 January, 2016, strong global criticism followed. Then, a little over a month later, North Korea launched the Kwangmyongsong-4 rocket that placed a satellite in orbit. These incidents have a far wider significance than the international outrage they sparked – they are destabilising developments for Northeast Asia and major diplomacy tests for South Korea, Japan and China.

The nuclear test raises concerns about the technical development of North Korea’s nuclear program, and also over the availability of weapons of mass destruction if there were a regime collapse – whose hands would they fall in to? The rocket test raises concerns about North Korea’s expanding capabilities to launch short, mid and long-range missiles that could reach both Japan and the United States.

While the nuclear test and launch are security concerns for neighbours in the region, the provocative initiatives were also about sending different messages to domestic and regional audiences.

At the domestic level, both events were meant to rally support for the North Korean regime by demonstrating its juche or self-reliance. By displaying its technical and military prowess, the regime could further consolidate domestic support for the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), the political elite and the military. It can also be argued that these moves were also targeted at the Pyongyang urbanites, who are the major beneficiaries of any successes that the regime may enjoy.

Further away from home, the launch and nuclear test was a defiant message from North Korea to the international community. It came at a time when the shifting sands of geopolitics have had Japan and South Korea participate in bilateral and trilateral summitry in November 2016, and the historic year-end Comfort Women agreement between South Korea and Japan. Even China’s dissatisfaction with North Korea’s shenanigans has left the North Korean regime feeling sidelined.

In response to North Korea’s actions, Japan suggested it would enforce unilateral sanctions against the regime. The immediate question for many, though, is what can Japan do unilaterally and would it have any impact on a regime that is already isolated diplomatically and economically?

In some ways, Japan is uniquely qualified to apply unilateral sanctions against North Korea and to spearhead a broader strategy to apply pressure on the Kim regime. Japan is home to at least 150,000 ethnic Koreans who still today pledge their allegiance to North Korea. The Ch’ongryŏn or (The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) and its members serve as a source of income for the Kim regime through overseas remittances.

Unilateral sanctions by Japan will close and limit this income source, making the life of North Korea’s elites more difficult. The Japanese government has also imposed a travel ban on North Korea, with these responses representing the limits of what Japan can do unilaterally without incurring a belligerent response from the North.

With that in mind, Japan’s complicated geopolitical relations in the region and its US-Japan security alliance can be leveraged to apply pressure on the Kim regime.  In coordination with the United States, Japan should support South Korea’s acquisition of the THAAD (terminal high altitude air defense) missile system. In doing so, Japan can indirectly put pressure on China to adopt a more constructive stance vis-à-vis North Korea. The strategic logic here is that China understands that the THAAD missile defense system is also capable of neutralising or at least attenuating China’s nuclear and missile capabilities, significantly weakening its defense and offence capabilities. Under these circumstances, they would likely prefer to pressure North Korea to toe the line rather than be subject to an American “new missile order”.

At the same time, Japan should further strengthen bilateral ties with South Korea by enhancing intelligence-sharing regarding North Korea, and consolidating intelligence-sharing between the US, South Korea and Japan as initiated in December 2014. This strategy not only encourages stability in the region through greater bilateral and trilateral cooperation, but it also acts as a confidence-building exercise between South Korea and Japan that can expand into other forms of military cooperation.

Japan should leverage its expanding horizontal network of security partners (系列外交/keiretsu gaikou) such as Australia, Vietnam, India and Philippines to encourage regional stability and the status quo.  Through close coordination and cooperation with existing partners, North Korea’s continued ability to destabilise the region can be curtailed.

Lastly, in cooperation with South Korea and the US, Japan should find ways to assuage China’s concerns over containment and security, so that China can shift its client state/buffer state strategy to one where it can deal with North Korea more effectively. Quadrilateral consultation, limited intelligence sharing on North Korea and written guarantees concerning North Korea’s national integrity would be useful steps in the right direction to acknowledging China’s security concerns and enlisting China’s aid in dealing with North Korea.

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Nagy, S. (2016). Japan and the North Korea dilemma - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: