Japan: Stuck on the Sidelines

Lost in the press coverage of the new nuclear deal with North Korea was a disturbing development: Japan's decision to remain the odd man out. Although it signed the agreement alongside Washington, Beijing, Seoul, Pyongyang and Moscow, Tokyo alone refused to provide any direct energy assistance to North Korea, in exchange for which Pyongyang has promised to start dismantling its weapons programs.

Japan's refusal stands in stark contrast to its behavior the last time a major deal was struck with North Korea: the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under the 1994 deal, Japan and South Korea were the largest financial contributors, agreeing together to pay more than 90 percent of the estimated $5 billion construction costs for two light-water nuclear reactors, which North Korea was promised in return for giving up its weapons programs. China, which was not party to the deal, paid nothing. This time, however, Japan is the outlier: a radical departure from its tactics in the past and a worrisome shift in Northeast Asia.

Japan's decision not to participate owes to a particularly thorny issue in the country's domestic politics: the question of the abductees. From the time he took office last September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made settling the abductee issue central to his nationalist appeal. North Korea acknowledges having kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, but Tokyo claims there are 17 victims, and the real number could be even higher. Abe was one of the first Japanese politicians to raise public awareness of the issue, and came to office swearing to make it his "top priority," and "never" to compromise.

Such rhetoric, unfortunately, has now painted him into a corner. A nuclear-armed North Korea is Japan's greatest nightmare. Yet having made so much of the abductee issue, the prime minister cannot be seen to cooperate on any deal with Pyongyang until that problem (which was not raised in the Six-Party Talks) is solved. And so far, Japan and North Korea have made no progress on the matter since a Pyongyang summit between Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Il in September 2002.

It's easy to understand why the kidnapping issue resonates with Japan's public. But Abe's problems also reflect a deeper dynamic. Even as the power of Washington's neoconservatives has declined in recent years, Japan's own neocons have been on the rise. Abe may not be a neocon himself, but as a conservative nationalist, his ascension has given the neocons new clout and access to power. These young politicians, who are growing in number, favor revising Japan's American-drafted pacifist Constitution to give Tokyo a freer hand on defense policy and redressing what they see as historical wrongs, such as the verdicts of the postwar Tokyo Tribunal (which they decry as "victor's justice"). They also oppose any compromise with North Korea. Shoichi Nakagawa, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council and a leading neocon, has already criticized Washington's offer to discuss de-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terror in the Six-Party Talks.

Such language is raising tensions between Washington and Tokyo. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, lead U.S. negotiator on North Korea, has been criticized by the Japanese neocons. They feel increasingly frustrated with Washington's refusal or inability to act in a forceful way in the region, and miss the muscular America of old. And they are reluctant to strengthen ties with China and South Korea or to explore regional approaches to peace and security.

Japan should tread carefully, however; remaining the odd man out in Asia could become very dangerous. The new deal with Pyongyang will likely go through many ups and downs. If it collapses, Japan could bear most of the blame in Asia for refusing to support it. If Japan continues to hold its energy assistance hostage to the abduction issue, it may also invite suspicion from neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea, that Tokyo secretly hopes to ensure Pyongyang keeps its nukes as an excuse for Japan to explore its own nuclear option. Japan's stand also risks weakening relations with the United States, which would undermine Japan's defense and deterrence power vis-à-vis North Korea.

The Six-Party process is thus the best way for Japan to ensure its security. The Abe administration faces a real moment of truth and test of courage: can it swallow its pride and play an essential part in the denuclearization of North Korea? Unfortunately, Abe's declining popularity makes this less likely. He seems to be afraid of alienating his most conservative constituencies by putting security policy—and the North Korean nuclear question—ahead of his identity politics, which center on the abduction issue. But if he continues putting Japan's domestic politics above its national strategic interest, Abe—and Japan—will end up paying a much higher price in the long term.