electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 2 in 2003
First published in ejcjs on 9 May 2003

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Consequences - A Change in Security Posture

Japan and North Korea


Jill Arase Margerison

PhD Candidate
University of Queensland

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Japan’s security preference for pacifism currently faces urgent review. There are even suggestions that following Pyongyang’s surprise admission to a clandestine nuclear weapons program, Japan might re-arm. Notably, although Pyongyang’s admission has caused much speculation and scepticism amongst analysts, the perception of threat continues to have direct consequences for regional bilateral and multilateral relations (Wall, 2003). Significantly, it is not the first time that Pyongyang has demonstrated belligerent actions and recent admissions only serve to induce recollections of the 1994 nuclear crisis. Notably, during this crisis, Japanese policy makers remained inert, expecting the US to provide adequate tactical response. Presently, in contrast to the 1994 nuclear crisis, Japanese policy making has demonstrated a notable increase in proactive security behaviour, pursuing diplomacy of its own, whilst coordinating vigorously with US and South Korean counter-parts. This development is remarkable for a nation that has consciously restrained its foreign policy behaviour under the rubric of the US-Japan alliance for five-decades and taken a low-key role in regional security politics.

What is one to make of Japan’s recent proactive stance in foreign policy making? This question prompts further speculation, since Japan remains an important security actor, whereby even non-action prompts serious debate. Accordingly, do new security initiatives mean that Japan is attempting to stand-alone? This paper suggests not. Despite evidence of Japan’s increased confidence in the realm of foreign policy behaviour, this paper argues that Japan’s security stance continues to demonstrate caution and concern. Japan has no desire to stand-alone in the region as a ‘Britain of the East.’ In the same way, it neither wants to become entangled in a conflict situation, nor does it want to be abandoned by the US. These are reoccurring concerns that beleaguer Japanese security and therefore prompt urgent re-assessment of the rationale behind Japan’s decision-making process.

Unlike the nuclear crisis of 1994, however, ‘this time round’ the US is heavily committed to a declared ‘War against Terror’ and this has heightened Japan’s perceptions of vulnerability. Thus, in evaluating Japan’s way of dealing with the present notion of threat, it is possible to see both ‘change and no change’ in its security stance. This seemingly paradoxical assessment can be seen as one that encompasses these twin fears of abandonment and entanglement in regional politics. It is one that also suggests that the most palatable strategic approach for Japan is to demonstrate a hybrid of both pro-active and reactive policy making. This conduct can be recognized as a ‘hedging’ strategy and the importance of this assessment contributes to greater understanding of North East Asian regional conflict management.

In order to contribute to the debate over Japan’s shifting security stance, this paper compares Japan’s reaction to the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis with that of the present day security predicament. This involves discussing events that influenced Japan’s security stance during the 1994 crisis and comparing them with recent perceptions of regional threat to facilitate interpretation of security intentions. Rather, than assume that that these intentions are based on the hypothesis that great powers are driven by international competition irrespective of differences in social origin, however, this paper emphasizes the need to consider the impact of social structure on the decision making process. It claims that Japan’s hedging strategy agrees with a critical component of Japan’s decision making process; that of its strategic culture. This is a culture that has incorporated the capacity for stasis and change. It is also a culture, which has constantly demonstrated an accommodative and pragmatic approach in order to ingratiate itself with the dominant ascendant power in the region. For the short to medium term, it argues, therefore, that Japan’s strategy to hedge against bilateral and multilateral uncertainty in current regional politics provides the most security.

Japan’s Security Response – 1994 Korean Nuclear Crisis

For Japan, there is much at stake in how the Cold War division of the Korean peninsula is resolved. This is not just because the threat from North Korea is direct and unambiguous, but also because the issue of Korean unification and, or conflict on the peninsula is fundamental to the future structure of international relations in the region. In particular, the situation on the Korean Peninsula also has a significant bearing on relations with China, Russia and the United States, all of whom have interests that overlap on the peninsula. Thus, any alteration to the dynamics on the peninsula could result in a number of great power balancing scenarios.

Despite these concerns, Japan’s diplomacy has typically remained minimalist and cautious with no diplomatic lead taken to resolve the division of the peninsula. Indeed, throughout the Cold War period, any notions of likely threat towards Japan were administered via the US security framework. This framework suited the Japanese as it meant they could concentrate on economic, rather than military security matters. At the same time, however, it developed growing criticism that Japan was not ‘pulling its weight’ in security matters. In particular, following the 1991 Gulf War, Japan was perceived by the international community as possessing neither the will, nor the capacity to carry out independent foreign policy, in spite of its enormous, economic strength.

This inert security behaviour was particularly evident in April 1994. During this period, security conditions in the region reached a climax as North Korea removed spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. This indicated that a nuclear weapons program was underway (Hughes, 1996 p.80). In response, the Clinton administration publicly recommended to the United Nations Security Council that economic sanctions be imposed against North Korea. This proposal only served to further sharpen regional tensions in the region with angry claims that any economic sanctions would be perceived as an act of war against North Korea (Yomiuri Shimbun, June 9, 1994).

International pressure rose for Japan to act, but domestic debate regarding its regional security role and responsibility towards defence exposed a bitter political power struggle. In response to the unfolding Korean crisis, different government factions revealed the complexities of the reactive/pro-active debate over Japan’s security stance. Whilst Prime Minister Hata and his followers appeared ready to react to the sanctions and offer Japanese logistical support, they also assumed that any implementation of the UN economic embargo would provoke probable North Korean military reprisals directly against Japan, resulting in entanglement in regional conflict. Hata, therefore, argued that inevitable legalities restrained Japan’s actions. “Although Japan is endowed by international laws with the right to use force to block a military offensive to a foreign country with close ties with Japan, Japan’s exercise of its right to collective security would overstep the boundary of the constitution” (FBIS-EAS, May 13, 1994). In opposition to this stance, however, other policy makers influenced by views of former LDP member Ozawa Ichiro, felt that the Korean crisis presented Japan with an ideal opportunity to assert a new security role in Asia. Foreign Minister Koji Kakizawa, for example, remarked that Japan should lift up the constitutional ban on Japan’s right to collective security, so as to carry out Japan’s international responsibility (Cited in Qinxin Ken Wang, 1997 p.86). Contradictory statements fuelled this debate for pro-activity, leading to sharp international criticism and concern over the Japanese government’s capacity to act on vital regional security issues.

For domestic politics, the eventual outcome was a vote of non-confidence for the Hata government. Meanwhile, whilst Japanese policy makers wrestled with the constitutional legalities of whether to reactively or proactively pursue the crisis situation on the peninsula, American intelligence believed that North Korea was close to possession of enough plutonium to make five to six atomic bombs. In June 1994, they considered launching an attack on the North Korean facilities and a second Korean War appeared imminent (Carter and Perry, 1997 p.127-8). Fortunately, this explosive situation was defused, which paved the way for the signing of the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea in October 1994. As a result, North Korea consented to freeze and dismantle its nuclear program, accepting the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards in return for substituting nuclear reactors with light water reactors (Hughes, 1996).

As for Japanese policymaking, the response to the Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, demonstrated unresolved legal limitations and domestic political difficulties, which hampered Japan’s quest for a regional security role. More importantly, it re-emphasized to the Japanese that they could no longer remain ‘Pollyanna like’ in their attitude towards regional defence. To do so would be to incur possible abandonment from the US security framework. Indeed, US Secretary of State William Perry remarked that had conflict ensued without Japanese assistance, “it would have been the end of the alliance” (Cited in Oberdorfer, 1998 p.39).

Shaping the current debate

With renewed crisis on the Peninsula, Japan is again faced with debate over the security alternatives. This prompts a number of suggestions regarding its intentions in dealing with the notion of threat:

Will this nuclear crisis provide justification for Japan to assume ‘normal military status’ by re-arming and prompt re-assessment of its standing as a leader in the region?

Will Japan prefer to defer to its pacifist standing as a pretext to avoid regional responsibilities and risk a continued minimalist role in regional security?

Or will Japan perceive its role as one, which defers to pacifist standing on a matter of principle, but still insists upon a regional security role?

In evaluating these options, both reactive and proactive security elements are visible. Option one continues to provide difficulties, due to significant regional and domestic convictions that Japan remains restrained by Article Nine of its Constitution. That does not mean that flexible and ambiguous interpretation of the laws cannot increasingly provide Japan with a prominent regional position. Indeed, this is currently the case and this observation is important because it bolsters concerns held regarding ‘abandonment.’ Option two provides opportunity to circumvent the possibility of ‘entrapment’. This is a position that Japan has maintained over the past half-century and one that in the current climate has become increasingly hard to justify. Option three can be seen as an attempt to combine option one and two. It is one that could prove difficult to substantiate and implement effectively, but at the same time, it is one that could contribute to moderating and not just exacerbating influences in the region.

Increased regional threat – Interpreting Japan’s altered security stance

Since the 1994 nuclear crisis, North Korean bellicosity has continued, accentuating Japan’s claims to vulnerability. In particular, there was a launch of a long-range Taepo Dong missile over Japanese airspace in 1998. This underlined an ongoing concern that any future North Korean missile strike could also well involve the release of biological or chemical warheads against ‘soft’ Japanese targets, in addition to US bases (Hughes, 1996). As a direct result, Japan adopted a harder policy line than that of the US or South Korea towards North Korea. This occurrence was also instrumental in Japan’s decision to erect their own satellites and command greater recognition with regards to the progression of multilateral talks with North Korea (Pyle and Heginbotham, 2001-2 p.103). Following the missile launch, however, regional tensions continued and Japan’s pro-active policy line strengthened. In March 1999, the director general of Japan’s Defense Agency, Norota Hosei told a Diet defence panel that Japan had the right to make pre-emptive military strikes if it felt a missile attack on Japan was about to happen (Kang, 2001 p.51). This was a significant development in Japan’s post-World War Two security policy. So too, was the reaction to two North Korean vessels that intruded into Japanese waters in 1999. This provoked the first shot fired in anger by Japan in fifty-four years (Ibid).

Thus, over the past decade, a gradual change in Japanese security policy making towards the notion of regional threat can be observed. There is a move away from the passive immobility of past policies towards enhanced proactive directives. This includes increased support for a number of multilateral confidence and security building efforts. It has also involved a prominent sponsorship role for Japan in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) and renewed financial commitment to the Four-Party Peace Talks.

Most recently, there was a notable shift in Japan’s management of peace and conflict issues on the peninsula. In September 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi took a major step towards normalization of relations with the North, by initiating a summit meeting with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. This was the first time a Japanese Prime Minister had met with a North Korean leader and the move prompted surprise and speculation that Japan was acting autonomously in the region (Pilling, 2002). Certainly, this surprise decision would have been unimaginable without the US endorsement a decade ago. There were even initial suggestions that the visit had created a diplomatic rift between the US and Japan (United Press International, 2002). Regardless, of the rift debate, however, there was certainly irony to the situation, in that the American President flatly refused to deal with the crisis in Iraq or North Korea, for that matter, through face-to-face discussions.

The United States quickly rejected claims of any disagreement with its stanch Asian ally, supporting Japan’s assertive diplomatic conduct. From the Japanese side, however, it was cautiously argued that the principal focus of the meeting was not to discuss security issues, but rather, to ascertain the whereabouts of eleven Japanese citizens allegedly kidnapped by North Korean spies during the 1970s and 1980s. For the Japanese policy makers, public outrage over this issue had remained an obstacle, hindering any previous government attempts at détente with the North. Yet what eventuated, following this historic summit, was a full-scale admission by the North Koreans to ‘cheating’ on the 1994 Agreed Framework, by operating a covert nuclear weapons program.

Since this blatant admission by the North Koreans, Japan’s foreign policy stance has continued to demonstrate considerable shift in its strategic preference away from pacifist principles towards pragmatic realism. Soon after the nuclear crisis materialized, Tokyo officials approached the Bush administration about increasing Japan’s role in theatre missile defences. One of the most striking developments is the unexpected call for Japan to acquire Tomahawk cruise missiles. These missiles would have the capacity to take out missile bases in North Korea, yet this type of political debate in Japan is unprecedented. “This is the first time we have had such an argument at the Diet since I became an MP 16 years ago and even before then we had never had it [this debate] as far as I know” (Ishiba, 2003). There were even claims that it would revise its own antinuclear stance, whilst simultaneously edging closer still to the US approach. In May 2002 the chief cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda explained that Japan’s war-renouncing constitution does not prevent it from possessing nuclear weapons (Struck, 2003). While such a response would seem obvious for some, – after all the US and Japan are allies and such a defiant breach to regional security should understandably evoke a clear stratagem – Japan’s response to the nuclear crisis of 1994 did not reveal a corresponding scenario. Rather, there was criticism over Japan’s dithering decision-making process casting a doubt on Japan’s regional leadership expectations. So what has enabled such change of strategic direction?

This time it can be argued that the security stakes are higher than during 1994, because despite North Korea’s remarkable show of brinkmanship, Japan understands that the US is irreversibly committed to a ‘war against terror.’ This has even extended to involve a war with Iraq. In addition, despite the existing firm framework of the alliance, it must be remembered that the United States is not obliged in perpetuity to provide strategic protection for Japan, and either party, on one year’s notice, can abrogate the US-Japan alliance (Lim, 2002). For Japan, there has even been concern that whilst the United States has been preoccupied with Iraq, a ‘shuffling of alliances’ is taking place in North East Asia (Struck, 2003b). This situation and the fact that the US faces a difficulties on different ‘fronts’, has strengthened the constant fear over abandonment or entanglement. In part, to counteract this concern therefore, it can be argued that Japan’s recent shift in security demonstrates an increased desire for autonomy in diplomacy.

Despite a change in its security outlook, however, Japan also continues cautiously to resist Washington’s hard-line approach to North Korea. This is evident in Japan’s efforts to further advance a multilateral approach to the situation via strengthening relations with China, South Korea and Russia. Consequently, what is apparent from these often-contradictory messages is a strategy that pursues a combined approach. This means Japan is demonstrating both pro-active and reactive power capabilities and in a period of ‘uncertainty’ providing itself with a ‘hedging’ alternative. This approach suits its strategic culture. This is a strategic culture which has typically adopted and accommodated to the dominant power of the day to maintain its own interests and status within the region (Pyle, in Pastor, 1999 p.112).

Weighing up Japan’s Security Intentions?

In analysing recent Japanese foreign policy making decisions, two prominent schools of thought – those of realists and constructivists – provide insight into these changes. This evaluation is imperative since greater theoretical understanding of policy-making decisions assists in assessing security for the regional framework. Both schools of thought suggest rationalization for Japan’s shift in policy. This paper suggests that neither offers a conclusive argument.

At first glance, it is possible to hypothesize that Japan’s current policy stance is moving in accordance with a hard-willed realist desire to maximize its power and national interests. After all, the nature of the Korean Peninsula security problem has been, and continues to be, influenced by its position as the core point of convergence for the geo-strategic interests of major regional and global powers. This includes China, Japan, Russia/USSR and the US, who over time have sought to defend their perceived individual strategic and security interests on the Korean Peninsula. Yet by arguing that Japan’s reactive security stance confers with analysis of the realist school of thought, there is no clear provision for understanding where such realpolitik behaviour originates. Further, it does not explain Japan’s tendency to pursue simultaneously a reactive and proactive policy approach. This dilemma provides an intellectual challenge to the existing IR paradigms, since the image of Japan that emerges regarding the threat from the Korean peninsula is not of a steadfast pacifist civilian power or a resurgent great power. Rather, it is one that demonstrates that Japan’s strategic approach to threat is determined by constant cultural influences, which have persisted across different structural contexts. This can be attributed to Japan’s strategic preference to adopt an accommodative and pragmatic approach to decision making. Thus, in the current climate, one might argue that Japan is likely to eschew technical legalities to provide adequate response to its regional security needs.

In supposing that Japan will rearm, however, how does the constructivist debate fit in? Constructivists have typically argued that Japan’s approach to security was transformed by its devastating defeat in World War Two and the enduring legacy of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic attacks. This prompted the creation of a culture of anti-militarism in Japan and the notion that Japan will not engage in self-help behaviour as a result of this influence. As current debate regarding Japan’s interest in acquiring offensive military capabilities grows, the argument that even the face of abandonment by the United States, “Japan’s strategic culture of non-violence would lead to an exploration of all other options before the last resort of ‘normal defense,’” looks increasingly remote (Katzenstein, 1996 p.204).

Nevertheless, this does not rule out the theoretical underpinnings of constructivist thought that suggest “states may not always know what they want and are receptive to teaching about what are appropriate and useful actions to take” (Finnemore, 1996 p.11). Indeed, for Japan, there is still ambiguity regarding how to best interpret contemporary change and shape new strategic approaches best suited to the country’s national interests. This aspect of Japanese strategy conforms to the interpretations of the late, Japanese political scientist Kosaka Masataka who observed, “…the Japanese have been good at adapting to strong, decisive pressures from outside” (Masataka, cited in Pyle 1992 p.112). As a consequence, it would appear that Japan’s assessments of the external environment and its current norms, offer the opportunity to pursue both proactive and reactive strategic behaviour. This change, however, does not mean that it will produce a militarist or pacifist nation. Neither does it mean that Japan will be standing alone.


In the case of the Korean Peninsula, Japan’s strategic security preference has been driven by a need to counteract a perceived threat, whilst simultaneously engendering a favourable regional and international diplomatic status. During the Cold War period, the US security structural framework met this desire effectively and as a result, Japan was able to concentrate on constructing anti-militarist norms and claim a new pacifist strategic culture had emerged. With the onset of increased security tensions in the post-Cold War period, however, Japan’s security stance has undergone significant pressures to change. Increasingly, it appears it is likely Japan will make use of a full range of options, including possibly military ones if the external situation so allows. Accordingly, what has emerged in recent Japanese foreign policy initiatives is a strategic preference, which values both pro-active and reactive behaviour simultaneously, demonstrating change and no-change. This can be seen as a ‘hedging’ strategy, and one that provides the safest approach in an uncertain security environment.


-------- (1994) “Japan’s Role in Sanctions against North Korea Unclear Problem”, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 9.

-------- (2002) “U.S Distrusts Japan over security: Washington doubly informed Tokyo of North Korea’s nuke development”, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, October 27.

Carter, Aston B. and Perry, William J. (1999) Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America, Washington D.C Brookings Institution Press.

Finnemore, Martha, (1996) National Interests in International Society, Cornell University Press, London,

Hata (1994) cited in “DPRK Contingency Perfect Measures”, FBIS-EAS May 13.

Hughes, Christopher W., (1996) “The North Korean Nuclear Crisis and Japanese Security”, Survival 38, 2 Summer.

Ishiba, Shigeru, (2003) cited in “Japanese debate gets offensive”, The Australian Financial Review, Monday, March 10.

Katzenstein, Peter J., (1996) Cultural Norms and National Security: Police and Military in Post-war Japan, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press,

Kang, C.S. Eliot, Kaseda, Yoshinori, (2001) “Korean and the dynamics of Japan’s post-cold war security policy”, World Affairs, volume 164, issue 2, Fall.

Lim, Robyn, (2002) Japan in US East Asian Strategy, NBR US-Japan Discussion Forum, Sunday 27 October.

Oberdorfer, Don, (1998) Changing Context of US-Japan Relations, New York, Japan Society.

Pastor, Robert A., (1999) A Century’s Journey, How the Great Powers Shape the World, Basic Books.

Pilling, David, (2002) “Koizumi to tread a fine line on his visit to North Korea”, Financial Times, September 16.

Pyle, Kenneth B., (1992) The Japanese Question, Power and Purpose in a New Era, The AEI Press, Washington, D.C.

Pyle, Kenneth B. and Heginbotham, Eric, (2001-02) Japan, The National Bureau of Asian Research, Strategic Asia.

Takahara, Kanako, (20039 “US request to shutter Iraqi Embassy declined”, The Japan Times, Thursday March 27.

Struck, Doug, (2003a) “Threat Erodes Japan’s Pacifism”, The Washington Post, February 14.

Struck, Doug, (2003b) “Alliances Shifting in Northeast Asia”, The Washington Post, March 23.

Wall, David, (2003) “Kelly ‘fairies’ threaten peace”, The Japan Times, May 1.

Wang, Qinxin Ken, (1997) “Japan’s search for influence in the Korean Peninsula after the Cold War: aspirations and constraints”, East Asia: An International Quarterly, Spring-Summer, volume 16, number 1-2.

About the author

Jill Margerison is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her area of interest is Japanese strategic security and foreign policy. She is a university tutor in international relations. Prior to her current position, she worked with JETRO and lived in Japan for a period of six years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts from Queensland University and a Masters of International Relations and Global Governance from Bond University. In 1990 she received a Monbushö scholarship to attend Keio University, Tokyo. Recently she won a Japan Foundation Fellowship for her doctoral work in 2003-2004.

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