Japan's Response to North Korea Takes on a Sharper Edge

Article excerpt

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is finding his nation dependent on the US in responding to North Korea, even as public opposition to the US base on Okinawa remains high.

North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong earlier this month, in addition to revelations that it has made dramatic advances in uranium-enrichment technology, has sparked anger in Japan and fueled the debate over its security ties with the United States.

The shelling of the South Korean island has dominated the news in Japan, even as Tokyo debates a key economic stimulus package and Prime Minister Naoto Kan battles attacks on his leadership and approval ratings of below 30 percent.

It has also exposed Japan's dependence on the US in responding to North Korea's unsophisticated, yet hitherto effective, negotiating tactics.

Hours after the guns fell silent, Japan issued the expected call for calm, while condemning the attack.

It was not, some observers agree, Prime Minister Kan's finest hour as a statesman. His immediate response was confined to the setting up of an information-gathering task force, although he captured the public mood when he said: "Indiscriminate attacks on civilians is a barbaric act that should not be tolerated.

"We will cooperate with South Korea, as well as the United States, and the three of us together will decisively counter North Korea's reckless and outrageous acts."

Sharpened tone on North Korea

Japan's response has since acquired a sharper edge, as the global diplomatic response to the crisis begins to take shape.

Tokyo joined the US in quickly rejecting Chinese calls for emergency six-party talks in early December. In Tokyo, as in Washington, there is an innate resistance to being seen as rewarding the regime for its transgressions.

In unusually unequivocal language for a senior Japanese politician, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said yesterday that talks would be "impossible" as long as the North refused to honor previous commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

While some hard-line politicians have raised the prospect of further bilateral sanctions against North Korea, Japan's options are limited. In addition to supporting UN Security Council sanctions, Tokyo has already banned all trade and refuses to allow North Korean ships and planes to enter its territory following the North's nuclear and missile tests.

Aside from sending technologically flawed rockets into the western Pacific and shunning Japanese demands to explain fully the abduction of Japanese nationals during the cold war, North Korea has again demonstrated its ability to create unease on the other side of the Sea of Japan. …

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