Japan has long been the linchpin of the U.S. security strategy in Asia. The current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is deeply invested personally and politically in nurturing the U.S.-Japan alliance. But no country and no prime minister views the rapidly changing developments in U.S.-North Korean relations with more doubt and angst that Mr. Abe. As the U.S. and North Korea hurtle toward an unprecedented summit meeting (sometime in late May or early June) consider Japan’s situation.
The legacy of World War II weighs profoundly on Northeast Asia. The Korean peninsula was “temporarily” divided by U.S. and Soviet negotiators at the conclusion of the conflict. Then a bloody three-year war left Korea divided almost precisely as it had been. Meanwhile, Japan — defeated and occupied — underwent a postwar transformation from enemy to ally of the U.S. Japan’s post World War II leadership saw their country’s future as an economic power that would abjure a normal military/security role. Japan’s “peace constitution” prohibited Japan from even maintaining armed forces that could be used in another war. It was not long before the impracticality of that idea became evident and Japan created “self-defense” forces but with severe restrictions on their role in anything beyond the direct defense of the Japanese homeland. Japan, in effect, contracted out its role in geopolitics to America under an alliance that allowed the U.S. to station tens of thousands of Army, Navy, Air Force, and especially Marines in Japan.
As part of this agreement, the U.S. guaranteed the security of Japan by extending its “nuclear umbrella” to the defense of the archipelago.
By almost any measure, this unusual arrangement has been a remarkable success. Japan became an economic juggernaut with one of the highest living standards in the world. America relied on the bases in Japan to fight two wars (Korea and Vietnam) and to sustain the U.S. strategic presence in East Asia — first to offset the Soviet Union and then China. And, by the way, Tokyo pays most of the cost of maintaining U.S. forces in Japan. As seen from the White House or the Pentagon, the alliance with Japan has been the absolute cornerstone of U.S. defense/security policy in the Pacific and beyond.
If anything, that relationship has grown even stronger over recent years. The rapidly growing power of China and Beijing’s engrained dislike of Japan has created a pervasive strategic insecurity in Tokyo, and with it a growing reliance on U.S. support. The perception of threat is hugely reinforced by North Korea’s breakneck pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them. Mr. Abe is a strategic thinker and a nationalist determined to move beyond Japan’s status as a kind of quasi-pacifist nullity in East Asian security affairs. If Abe could have his way, Japan would shed all constitutional restrictions and become a “normal” great power — probably with nuclear weapons. But the Constitution and Japanese public opinion constrain him so his logical strategic option, faced with China’s challenge, is to double down on the U.S. alliance. Not surprisingly, Mr. Abe gave the highest priority to establishing a close relationship with the new U.S. president, Donald Trump. Abe managed to get in the door of Trump Tower before the inauguration and before any other foreign leader. He has paid repeated visits to the U.S., golf clubs in hand, to cultivate Trump, usually at Mar-a-Lago.
Against this backdrop, the sudden rush of developments regarding North Korea is not just disconcerting, it is alarming. The North Korean dictator’s offer to sit down with South Korea’s president and then with the American president is viewed with deep skepticism in Tokyo. Japan fears, with good reason, that North Korea has no intention of actually dismantling its nuclear and missile capabilities and will seek only to hoodwink Seoul and Washington into relaxing sanctions on North Korea in return for insincere promises and protestations of peaceful intent. North Korea’s arsenal is a clear and present danger to Japan. The U.S. is preoccupied with North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles that are still being developed. Japan is concerned with Pyongyang’s much larger arsenal of intermediate range missiles that are both operational and easily capable of hitting Japan. There is another lingering neuralgic issue for Tokyo. In the 1970s, North Korean agents actually came ashore in Japan, abducted young Japanese, and brought them to North Korea to help train North Korean spies. Ever since, Tokyo has been demanding the return of its kidnapped citizens but so far only a handful have been repatriated.
What alarms Tokyo most is the prospect that this American president — impulsive, untutored, untethered — will sit down with Kim Jong Un and cut a deal that will leave Japan in the lurch. This was the reason for Abe’s urgent visit to Mar-a-Lago last week. Repeatedly, Abe stressed that “maximum pressure” (sanctions) must be maintained on North Korea until Pyongyang took “concrete actions” to demilitarize, including the destruction of its arsenal of intermediate range missiles. In addition, Japanese abductees must be accounted for.
Mr. Abe is not comforted by Mr. Trump’s effusive enthusiasm for his upcoming meeting with Mr. Kim as evidenced by this tweet last Friday: “North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests … This is very good news … big progress! Look forward to our Summit.”
It is worth remembering that if Tokyo begins to seriously lose confidence in American protection, there is one logical strategic alternative. Japan should acquire its own nuclear arsenal.