Another Abe Administration, A New North Korea

In Japan’s parliamentary snap elections on 22 October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is almost certain to retain his seat despite extreme unpopularity. In fact, nearly half of the Japanese people do not support the Prime Minister in his present position. However, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is trusted by many within Japan – it is expected to win between 281 and 303 seats in the 465-seat lower house in the upcoming electoral contest.

Abe’s only opponent, Tokyo Governor and leader of the Party of Hope, Yuriko Koike, announced on 4 October that she would be withdrawing her candidacy for the Prime Minister Position. The Party of Hope itself emerged from the Democratic Party, the Japanese opposition until early October. Therefore, it is equally significant that the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, another Democratic Party offshoot, chose to contest elections separately from the Party of Hope. This undermined all potential for an upset in the parliamentary elections, as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan will likely take 45-50 seats away from the Party of Hope thus splitting the vote in favour of the Liberal Democrats, and keeping Abe in power.

Image Courtesy of Center for Strategic and International Studies, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Abe’s re-election will affect Japan’s policy for the next four years. In particular, Abe’s victory in this snap election will facilitate Japanese foreign policy, particularly towards the North Korean nuclear crisis.

North Korea’s military is now ranked 23rd in the world. The regime has an available manpower pool of over 13 million. In contrast, Japan is ranked 7th in the world, and has over four times the available manpower for its military, due to its significantly larger population. Nevertheless, North Korea is not a nation to be caught off guard. In the past month, Japan has seen two North Korean ballistic missiles flown over its prefecture of Hokkaido.

According to the Japanese times, the new Abe administration’s policy on North Korea would call for continued ‘close cooperation between Japan and the U.S’ But to what extent? Abe emphasised in his campaign that, with regards to North Korea, a military solution needs to be implemented. He highlighted the past relations Japan has had with North Korea, especially the 1978 kidnapping of two Japanese citizens. Without going into the constitutional roadblocks of such a military effort, it’s important to highlight the resources Japan has for a joint- defensive or offensive manoeuvre, and the areas that such an effort would target.

The first location of interest for Japan would be the South China Sea. Japan relies heavily on its coast guard, which patrols 12 times the landmass of Japan. Moreover, both the Japan and the U.S challenge China for control of ‘International waters’ – China continues to expand its power in the South China Sea using man made islands. How does China relate to a North Korea attack? North Korea and China have had a continuous bond, with China being North Korea’s primary trade partner, supplying the regime with enough food and aid to maintain the nation amid a mass of international sanctions.

Given the North Korea-China relationship, one must distinguish between an offensive versus defensive approach to a North Korean attack. If Japan used a primarily defensive strategy, it would be less likely for China to come to North Korea’s aid than if Japan, in coordination with the United States, took offensive action and pre-emptively struck to disable North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Thus, the conflict’s expansion into the South China Sea would be an offensive manoeuvre and engage China into what would be a tougher conflict for Japan to end quickly and positively. By extension, if Japan were to plan an attack, using the coast guard to control more of the South China Sea would only provoke China and encourage their intervention, rendering this strategy questionable. This discussion raises an important question: in the event of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on North Korea, how would Abe and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) react?

Following a speech at the United Nations in which President Trump called Kim Jon Un ‘Rocket Man’, the North Korean foreign minister said that the North Korean regime referring to the Trump administration has: ‘Lit the wick of war’. If these threats catalyse future action, the question of Japan’s intervention remains. If Trump asks Abe to join him in a military manoeuvre, is Japan obliged to accept? If another missile is launched over Japan (The earlier mentioned Hokkaido missile was targeted past Japan into the Pacific), will the Japanese government support the U.S. shooting it down, or would it rather risk its safety to prevent the U.S. pulling the nation into war?

While both questions will be highly debated in the new Abe administration, the fact remains that Japan is of vital importance to a U.S. lead attack on North Korea. In a report by Emma Chanlett-Avery from the Congressional Research Service; the U.S. has a military presence in Okinawa of: ‘53,000 military personnel (39,000 onshore and 14,000 afloat in nearby waters)’. So, even if Japan is not directly involved in the conflict, the U.S. will still use Japan as a station to carry out its attacks. Furthermore, in the event of conflict, if quick victory is probable and Chinese intervention unlikely, will the world see Japan take an offensive stance once again?

Ultimately, given that a solo Japanese coast guard operation would anger a larger Chinese force, and there is such a large U.S. presence in Japan, two conclusions can be made. For one, Japan cannot fight a battle without the U.S., nor a war in which China is involved. Furthermore, we can expect the Abe administration to not make any pre-emptive or defensive manoeuvres, without the U.S., nor allow the U.S. to launch any attacks from its Okinawa forces, with the exception of a clear victory and U.S. protection to accompany Japan’s Self Defence Forces.

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