electronic journal of contemporary japanese
Discussion Paper 2 in 2003
First published in ejcjs on
9 May 2003
How to contribute to
Consequences - A
Change in Security Posture
Japan and North Korea
Jill Arase Margerison
e-mail the Author
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
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
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
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
Or will Japan perceive its role as one, which defers to pacifist
standing on a matter of principle, but still insists upon a regional
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
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
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,
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.
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Problem”, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 9.
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Carter, Aston B. and Perry, William J. (1999) Preventive Defense:
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Finnemore, Martha, (1996) National Interests in International
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Hughes, Christopher W., (1996) “The North Korean Nuclear Crisis and
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Ishiba, Shigeru, (2003) cited in “Japanese debate gets offensive”,
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Strategy, NBR US-Japan
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declined”, The Japan Times, Thursday March 27.
Struck, Doug, (2003a) “Threat Erodes Japan’s Pacifism”, The
Washington Post, February 14.
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Washington Post, March 23.
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International Quarterly, Spring-Summer, volume 16, number 1-2.
About the author
Jill Margerison is a PhD candidate at the
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
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