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How public opinion on the north korean threat has influenced Japanese foreign policy

Seung Hyok Lee, Japanese Society and the Politics of the North Korean Threat, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 200 pp. (ISBN 9781442630345)

North Korea has been portrayed in various guises in Japanese media, such as a «paradise on earth»; a socialist regime that enforces the unique socialist ideology of Juche; a hermit kingdom isolated from the rest of the world; a member of the «axis of evil», posing a security threat to other nations; or one of the poorest countries in the world with many hopeless street children called kotjebi. As the sequestered nature of the country means that it is difficult to access or to obtain credible information on it, North Korean issues have often been treated sensationally in Japan, not only in political discussions, but also in daily news. Furthermore, it is quite difficult to understand North Korean actions in a reasonable sense because it commonly employs harsh rhetoric and adopts behavioural patterns that involve taking risks in order to achieve better deals at the last minute; hence, Japanese policymakers have been required to negotiate many obstacles to achieve a stable relationship or a sense of normalisation with North Korea, particularly in recent years, which have seen several crises.

This book examines how Japan has reacted to North Korean threats and why it has chosen these actions. The book’s main question concerns why Japan has merely implemented limited policies such as denouncing North Korea during the missile crisis of 1998, but adopted more coercive means to impose unilateral sanctions in 2006. To answer this question, the author mainly focuses on gradual changes in the Japanese public’s sentiments towards North Korea and the influence of public opinion on external policy. In this sense, this book offers a case study of the multi-disciplinary research into political sociology, media politics, decision-making and the linkage between Japanese domestic and foreign policy, and the international relations in East Asia in the post-Cold War era.

The first chapter introduces the main question, which has been already mentioned, and sets the analytical framework of this book. The most important point to note in relation to the author’s framework is that he focuses on the abduction issue above all the North Korean threats discussed in this book. This issue relates to the fact that North Korea secretly kidnapped ordinary Japanese citizens and smuggled them to North Korea during the 1970s and 80s. These hostages were then coerced into serving as Japanese translators or as teachers of intelligence officers in North Korea. By focusing on this, the author intends to carefully exclude nuclear threats from his main analysis, though he supposedly understands their significance and relevance to the sanctions. This is because, he argues, (1) the nuclear tests do not always violate Japan’s sovereignty or directly victimise any Japanese citizens by themselves, and (2) the nuclear threats should be resolved in multilateral forums, like the Six Party Talks, but not through bilateral relations, unlike the abduction issue.

The author begins his presentation of his main arguments in the second chapter of the book. In Chapter II, he discusses the historical background of Japan-North Korea relations up to 2000, particularly focusing on Japanese reaction to the Taepodong-1 missile launch of August 1998 and the incursion of two North Korean fushinsen (mystery/spy vessels) in March 1999. He argues that Japan’s response to these events was limited; it made a statement of condemnation, appealed to the United Nations to pass a resolution, suspended its financial contributions to KEDO, joined the US Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) initiatives, and strengthened its own defensive capabilities. These threats by North Korea were insufficient to provoke leading news media to demand more realistic power-based approaches or to fundamentally change Japan’s post-war anti-militarist identity. The Japanese government maintained its diplomatic goal of achieving normalisation with North Korea and it attempted to mitigate tensions with Pyongyang by sending the Murayama delegation in December 1999.

Chapter III discusses Japan-North Korea relations from 2001 to 2002, prior to the first summit meeting in September 2002. In particular, the author examines how the new leadership of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro changed Japanese politics. Koizumi enjoyed considerable popular support from the public as a result of his image as a powerful reformer determined to remove the old political power and radically reform the old-fashioned system. The author emphasises that Koizumi changed the influence the media and public opinion had on Japan’s decision-making mechanism; this was because the legitimacy of his policies largely depended on the strong support of the public. However, in terms of his initial policy toward North Korea, the author also highlights that Koizumi maintained the traditional Japanese policy of engagement and the diplomatic goal of achieving normalisation with North Korea. At this juncture, December 2001, another fushinsen incident raised security concerns among the public, but Koizumi handled the Japanese public’s anxiety and the possible signals his response might send to Pyongyang well; he updated the operational roles of the Japan Coast Guard, but only moderately, and drafted bills for emergency legislation, albeit without putting the decisions to a vote.

Chapter IV contains the main focus of the book, covering bilateral relations from 2002 to 2004. The author discusses the first Koizumi-Kim summit meeting of September 2002 and the Japanese reactions to North Korea’s admissions, particularly concerning the abduction issue and their security concerns. Among the many compromises made at the summit, the author attaches special importance to Kim Jong Il’s acknowledgement of North Korea’s involvement in the abductions and the fushinsen incidents. The Japanese found it very unacceptable that North Korea had abducted innocent Japanese people and that, of these abductees, only five had survived. The author examines how, after the summit meeting, this revelation sparked anger among the Japanese and set the societal discourse on North Korean issues. The Japanese people seriously attacked the press and established authorities who they believed were pro-North Korean, defended the North Korean position, or had neglected this issue: particularly the progressive section of the mainstream media (such as the Asahi Shimbun and Sekai), socialist or communist political parties (e.g., the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The author stresses that the breakthrough in regard to the abductions and other issues at Pyongyang paradoxically made the Japanese more intolerant and inflexible and also raised security concerns. Koizumi maintained the diplomatic goal of achieving normalisation, but had to adjust his position in regard to the implementation of the Pyongyang Declaration by making the abduction issue the highest priority; he also passed emergency legislation bills in June 2003 in response to the rising security concerns among the public.

The fifth chapter illustrates the growing dynamism of Japan’s policy shift to unilateral sanctions and the power transition from Koizumi to Abe Shinzo that occurred between 2004 and 2006. Koizumi visited Pyongyang again in May 2004 to make further deals with Kim Jong Il, particularly in relation to mitigating the abduction issue by bringing the abductees’ remaining family members back to Japan and putting the Pyongyang Declaration back on track. Nevertheless, the second summit did not make as much progress as Koizumi wished, and the public realized that North Korea would not sincerely respond to Japanese demands. The author describes how Abe gradually came to represent the growing public clamour for sanctions and enhanced his status as the frontrunner of the possible post-Koizumi leaders; however, Koizumi kept Abe under his control and maintained the diplomatic goal of achieving normalisation until December 2004. At this juncture, the author stresses that a turning point was reached. North Korea had handed over what it claimed to be the cremated remains of the allegedly dead abductee Yokota Megumi, one of the icons of the abduction issue; however, DNA testing in December 2004 proved the North Korean allegations to be false. Japan passed two sanction bills in 2004, which remained unimplemented until 2006, that prohibited the transfer of money and goods to North Korea and the entry of North Korean vessels into Japanese ports. However, the Taepodong-2 launch of July 2006 compelled Japan to take further action, implementing unilateral sanctions and taking a strongly requesting the UN implement international sanctions against Pyongyang, a much stronger reaction than in 1998. The author closes this chapter with an epilogue that explains that immediately after the decision to impose additional sanctions was announced in September 2006, Koizumi finished his term and Abe gained power.

In Chapter VI, the concluding chapter, the author concludes his arguments and presents some implications for future Japan-North Korea relations and a possible revision of the Constitution of Japan. He critically argues that it is unlikely that the abduction issue will be resolved in a manner that satisfies Japan because the Japanese public are unlikely to believe anything North Korea claims, even with transparent and sincere reinvestigation. Additionally, he concludes that although the abduction fever has lost some of its momentum, Japanese policies towards North Korea will continue to be linked strongly to the resolution of the abduction issue.

Through careful examinations and detailed narratives, this book successfully makes important academic contributions, particularly in regard to the following two points:
The first is the relative position of this book among similar literature. While there are some excellent works on the North Korean crisis or Japanese policy toward North Korea, including Yoichi Funabashi’s The Peninsula Question and Linus Hagström and Marie Söderberg’s North Korea Policy: Japan and the Great Powers, this book presents a quite unique analysis of the question, considering the Japanese public’s discourse on North Korean issues. In particular, the author sets the abduction issue as the main topic, which is quite unique, but absolutely dominant, in Japan-North Korea bilateral relations; other works have merely taken traditional approaches, such as concerning themselves with North Korea’s nuclear development or the missile crisis. In this sense, this book has unique, powerful and long-lasting academic values and, in the future, will be referred to as an excellent case study on this topic.
The second point is the author’s choice of media and his balanced position on the discourse analysis. Some people may be sceptical about the author’s arguments because, even before the missile crisis of 1998, popular jingoistic sentiments and powerful hawkish arguments concerning North Korea were prevalent, as can be seen in conservative/rightist papers such as the Sankei Shimbun and affiliated media such as Shokun or Seiron. Such critics are probably correct. However, in regard to the main target of the discourse analysis of this book, the author examines articles and editorials of the two leading Japanese newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, representing moderate liberals and moderate conservatives, thereby excluding extremely right/left news media or marginal papers.

This selection method fundamentally sets the quality of this research. The abduction issue is essentially a difficult research topic because it has been treated too sensationally and politically in Japan. It requires observers to distance themselves from the topic, maintain an objective perspective, and not become involved in any political controversies; otherwise, their research would lose its unbiased position and its academic solidity, becoming simply a product of certain political leanings. However, the author consistently maintains a balanced position and examines those two mainstream papers in order to demonstrate how average Japanese people feel about the North Korean threats and the abduction issue.

Finally, let me conclude my review with a critical comment on the analytical framework and the composite nature of the North Korean threats. In the first chapter, the author defines the framework by focusing on the abduction issue and excluding the nuclear threats from his main analysis of this book. In the following chapters, he explains in further detail how the abduction issue should be distinguished from the nuclear threats in terms of the quality and the perception of the threats. However, as the author himself also presumes, North Korean threats, such as the abductions, the missile launches, and the nuclear development, are essentially compound and interrelated.

This is particularly true in his arguments concerning the Six Party Talks (SPT) and implementation of the additional sanctions (Chapter V). The author describes how Japan attempted to connect the abduction issue with nuclear and other security threats in order to include the abduction issue as an agenda of the SPT and to intensify the contents of the sanctions. Some earlier studies, like Funabashi’s The Peninsula Question, also situate the abduction issue within a broader context of North Korean security threats, including the nuclear and missile threats. In this sense, I am left with the question of the applicability of his theories – whether the abduction issue can be discussed independently of other dimensions of the North Korean threats or if his arguments can make sense only in a unique case like Japan-North Korea relations. I understand the author is successful in making his analyses more consistent and refined by focusing on a particular aspect of the North Korean threats, such as the abduction issue, because he respects theoretical parsimony in this work; however, I wish the author would discuss the abduction issue within a broader picture of the North Korean crisis so that more observers can discern the relevance of that issue to other North Korean threats.


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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