Japan’s Role in the North Korea Nuclear Crisis

, China project manager and senior analyst | January 11, 2018, 7:01 am EST
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Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (second from left) consults with US President Barack Obama during a 2010 summit on nuclear security.

During a recent trip to Japan I had the opportunity to discuss Japan’s role in the current North Korean nuclear crisis with Yukio Hatoyama, a former prime minister. He led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to victory in September 2009, becoming the only Japanese politician to defeat the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the polls since end of the Second World War. 

The DPJ campaigned on wresting political and economic power away from an unelected bureaucracy and returning it to Japan’s elected representatives. Mr. Hatoyama’s perceived inability to deliver on that promise led to a loss of public support and his resignation as the leader of the DPJ in June of 2010. His party held on to power until they were defeated in September 2012 by a chastened LDP led by the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Hatoyama is concerned about Abe’s approach to the North Korea nuclear crisis. He believes the current Japanese prime minister is providing unwise and provocative encouragement to US President Donald Trump’s threats to launch a pre-emptive military attack. Hatoyama is not alone in that assessment. Most of the Japanese I spoke with during my stay in Japan feel their government should be encouraging dialogue rather than cheerleading for pre-emptive US strikes that could ignite a wider war and invite North Korean retaliation against US military bases in Japan.

Yukio Hatoyama comes from a storied political family, and one of the wealthiest in the country. His father, Ichirō, served as foreign minister from 1976-77 under Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. His grandfather, also named Ichirō, served three terms as prime minister from December 1954 through December 1956.

Although he retired from electoral politics in 2010, Mr. Hatoyama continues to promote what he believes may be his most important political legacy: the creation of an East Asian regional institution comparable to the European Union. His controversial efforts to advance the idea during his term in office troubled US Japan hands, who worried an Asian version of the EU would undermine the US-Japan relationship, especially since Hatoyama believes greater Japanese cooperation with China is an essential prerequisite for success.

UCS came to know Mr. Hatoyama through colleagues in the Japanese nuclear disarmament community. They were encouraged by his strong support for President Obama’s effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy, including US security policy in Asia. Together with our non-governmental counterparts in Japan, UCS continues to work with Japanese legislators, the broad majority of whom, from all political parties, support responsible nuclear reductions.

We hope to bring more of their voices to the US debate about US nuclear weapons policy as President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review unfolds later this year.

Our interview with Mr. Hatoyama was conducted in his Tokyo office on November 21, 2017. An audio file of the interview is available upon request.


 

UCS: Today we have the honor of speaking with Yukio Hatoyama, the former Prime Minister of Japan and the current Director of the East Asia Community Institute. Mr. Prime Minister thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

I suppose we should start with the question of North Korea. How do you think about the way the United States and Japan are responding to what North Korea is doing?

Hatoyama: In regards to the North Korean development of nuclear missiles of course it is a reality that this is indeed a threat and in that sense countries around the world should be cooperating together and it may be necessary also to impose sanctions as is being done now. However, the final purpose for these sanctions should always be how to bring North Korea to the dialogue table.

Unfortunately, in Japan Prime Minister Abe has said that the time now for dialogue has finished, but I believe this is incorrect.

And, of course, when we consider why it is that North Korea has gone ahead to develop its missiles and nuclear weapons as well we need to recognize that fact that while there is a ceasefire agreement in place between the United States and North Korea, the war is not yet over, it’s still just in a state of ceasefire.

When we think about how North Korea is looking to create its own situation as well, it also sees the United States’ nuclear weapons and missiles – that are being maintained – being possessed – as well. And this is also leading it to seek its own nuclear and missile development program.

If we consider that North Korea is looking at its possession of these weapons as a tool for dialogue I think this really shows even more how the fact that dialogue now is more necessary than ever.

UCS: So, you think they are using it to start a dialogue with the United States?

Hatoyama: Yes, I do think so. And I believe it is necessary for us to recognize the fact that while North Korea knows that if they were to launch a nuclear weapon or missile towards the United States their own country, in turn, would be obliterated. They are aware of this. And, therefore, I don’t believe it’s likely they would actually make such an attack.

Therefore, I think instead we should understand their actions as looking at a way to try and seek negotiations with the United States which would allow them to have a more equal position between the two countries.

UCS: One of the things that members of Congress and the critics of the Trump administration’s policy towards North Korea have been discussing is the possibility of an accidental war… because of the rhetoric about the time for dialog being over… sending a signal to North Korea that military action is what happens when the time for dialogue is over.

Do you think Prime Minister Abe’s repeating that phrase about dialogue – the time for dialogue being over – is increasing the risk of an accidental miscalculation that could lead to a war with North Korea?

Hatoyama: Of course, from the part of President Trump, looking at how he mentioned having to consider all possibilities, including attacking through use of force. That is something which perhaps as a president should be considered.

However, this use of force cannot be the first option. That cannot be what is first gone to, whether it includes accidental use or not. Of course, if there were to be an accidental use of weapons by the United States on North Korea, North Korea would retaliate, in turn, against Seoul, against South Korea and against Japan. Of course, this would not be in the interest… not be good for Japan.

Now that Prime Minister Abe is repeatedly saying that the time for dialogue is over, the more he says this – the more he repeats this – the more the risk is increased as well. And this is also not in the interest of Japan.

UCS: A related issue in the United States is China’s role in this whole problem. A lot of American officials and the American media are highly critical of China because they don’t think they’re doing enough. What do you think about that?

Hatoyama: I believe that rather than looking at…criticizing China in terms of its role … or what role it is or is not playing … the fundamental issue at stake here is an issue between the United States and North Korea. China, Japan and South Korea are therefore not central players in this but have the role of looking at how they can cooperate together between these countries to create the conditions and space for negotiations between the United States and North Korea as the two key players in this issue.

Of course, China and these other countries they themselves do not desire a war to break out. While some may be criticizing China for being too generous or too kind towards North Korea, rather we should be looking at how to have more cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea in order to bring the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table.

UCS: Well the main issue is that people in the United States want them to cut off oil and food. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Hatoyama: I believe that cooperation in the direction of sanctions is to an extent necessary. However, we also need to recognize that if North Korea is pushed too far into a corner then it’s unclear what actions they might take, and what means they might take to do this.

When we also consider Japan’s history as having been on the receiving side of economic sanctions – which actually contributed to Japan’s path towards waging the wrong war in the past century as well, this is something that we need to learn from history and recognize that strict sanctions can… well, do not necessarily always lead to positive results. They can actually lead to such negative results as well.

China is saying it will to an extent cooperate as part of the international community on the increase or strengthening of sanctions. We also need to make sure that this is not done in order to, well, let the people of North Korea completely starve. On the contrary, we need to look at what the purpose of this is.

UCS: Well I know our time here today is limited so I have just one final related question, and we’ll just keep the focus on North Korea. And that is the domestic political aspects of the North Korea question in Japan. I was invited to listen from the gallery to Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the Diet last week. North Korea seemed to be a prominent part of the speech. He conveyed the idea that this was an important issue in the last election. Was it? And do you think there is anything that the opposition, in Japan, can do to sort of change the Japanese view of the North Korea question.

Hatoyama: Unfortunately, in the recent election Prime Minister Abe was re-elected by bringing this idea of the threat of North Korea to the fore, and saying this is why we need a stable government in place. This was used to convince the people to vote in favor for him in this past election.

I believe that whether it’s President Trump or any American president, the policy of Japan, which is now being put forward by Prime Minister Abe, following the United States administration fully in its policies is not going to be the way to resolve any kind of issue including the issue of North Korea as well.

When we look at the policy…or Prime Minister Abe stating that the time for dialogue is over.. we’re merely following US policy in regard to North Korea. This is not the way to be able to resolve this issue. Rather, Japan needs to be looking at how it can play a role in bringing the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table, and aim in this direction. This is the direction in which the government should be aiming and the opposition parties should also be pushing the government towards this and encouraging this as well.

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