Precarious and personal: Japan struggles with North Korea

TOKYO -- As a nation based on peace and harmony, Japan finds itself in a precarious position when it comes to threats by North Korea.  

The nation, whose military-policy is focused strongly on self-defense, is emphasizing the importance of agreements with the United States, citing comfort in a meeting earlier this year with President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Yet no matter how strong the alliances may be, it cannot stop the unpredictable behavior of North Korean leader Kim Jung Un.  

In a briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo, an official described the North Korean threat to me as "immediate."  

Evidence of that concern was seen firsthand after the recent missile launch into the exclusive economic zone in Japan. The concerns continue after North Korea's successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), potentially capable of reaching Alaska. During my visit, government officials were quick to share lists of every North Korean missile test and the increased frequency. One government official was noticeably stressed, suggesting sleepless nights when discussing the new pace of testing exhibited by North Korea.

As the United States tries to determine North Korea’s motivation, so too are government leaders in Tokyo. Another official described to me what it's like to be at the negotiating table with North Korean officials.  

He said the North Korean diplomats like to give long speeches, often hitting the table with their fist, trying to appear strong and forceful. Yet despite such diatribes, it's still not clear the true reason behind North Korea's military muscle. Does North Korea simply want to be recognized as a world power with a place at the table? Or is it seeking something more? These questions are shared by other global leaders.

Like the rest of the world, Japan knows the importance China can play in trying to quell the unpredictable regime in North Korea. However, Japan has its own issues with China. While the strife with North Korea dominates the headlines, some Japanese military officials feel the buildup of Chinese ships off coastal waters may be an even larger threat to Japan's sovereignty and peace. The movement of Chinese military also threatens Japan's economy, as many fisherman have had to be forced to leave the waters where they work.  

For Japan, the tension with North Korea is personal. While the military actions are concerning, Japan is still haunted by the abduction of more than a dozen citizens by North Korea.

Dating back to the late 1970's, Japanese government officials say 17 citizens were abducted. Japan is still demanding justice, asking for any abductees to be returned along with the individuals responsible for the crimes. Issues that Japanese leaders still would like to be resolved despite the military movement of North Korea.   

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