electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 1 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs on 14 January 2008

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No Trace of Influence?

Japan's North Korea Policy and the Great Powers


H.D.P. Envall

Associate Lecturer
LaTrobe University

About the Author

Hagström, Linus and Marie Söderberg (eds) (2006) North Korea Policy: Japan and the Great Powers, London: Routledge.
ISBN 0415399165 - Hardback, 177 and xii pages.

Despite its focus on an East Asian security issue, North Korea Policy: Japan and the Great Powers has a notably European background. The book emerged from a conference, entitled 'Japan, East Asia and the Formation of North Korea Policy', which was jointly held by the European Institute of Japanese Studies and the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm in March 2005. It is edited by Linus Hagström and Marie Söderberg (also author of the introductory chapter) and includes contributions from a range of scholars, including Yoichiro Sato, Christopher Hughes and Quansheng Zhao.

The book's quite original aim is to 'use North Korea policy as the subject for a case study to analyse Japanese foreign policy' (page 1). Despite the slightly misleading title, therefore, the book is concerned not so much with North Korea than with how Japan has been managing its North Korea policy in the context, chiefly, of its key foreign policy relationships (e.g. with South Korea and the United States), but also in the context of the region's multilateral frameworks (especially the Six-Party Talks). The book asks 'Has the image of Japan as a curiously (or intelligibly) passive and reactive trading state remained an accurate one in the midst of the turbulent changes, both domestically and internationally, of recent years?' (page 1). In examining such questions, North Korea Policy focuses on 'two similar instances of international interaction in regard to North Korea' (page 6). These are the international coordination process that took place between 1993 and 1995, which resulted in the Agreed Framework and the establishment of KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation), and the Six-Party Talks that have taken place since 2003.

There are two major themes pursued in the book. The first is international change: how regional relations have been affected 'by the end of the cold war, rapid globalization, and c a "changing power structure" in the region' (page 1). The second concerns the questions noted above, that is, the importance of Japan to regional relations generally and to the North Korea issue in particular. Having questioned the trend in the recent literature that has 'gone from "Japan-bashing" to "Japan-passing" and then to "Japan nothing" ' (page 1), the book seeks to examine 'how the power or influence of Japanese foreign policy has evolved relative to that of other important actors in the region during the last decade or so' (page 5). The book is divided into an introduction plus eight chapters. The first chapter looks at Japan's North Korea policy itself, while the second examines the rationales behind North Korea's own strategy. Chapters 3 and 5 look at how the major Asian players have approached North Korea and Japan, while Chapters 4, 6 and 7 examine the perspectives of the West (the US, Russia and the EU). The book concludes with a chapter on the region's main multilateral frameworks.

The book has a number of strong points. It undoubtedly tackles a fundamental issue for East Asian security, the at times conciliatory but most often confrontational diplomatic tussle over North Korea's nuclear program. As Hagström and Söderberg argue in the first chapter (page 5), 'North Korea figures very highly on the agenda of major actors in North-East Asia and it is regarded as one of the major destabilizing factors in the entire Asia–Pacific region'. It also develops a novel way of comparing Japan's role to those of other states. By looking at Japan's role relative to other regional actors, the book is able to draw out valuable insights into both Japanese policy and the role of the North Korean issue in East Asian politics, a task which would have been far more difficult if it had focused solely on Japan–North Korea relations. For the editors, this style of case study is useful in several ways. First, it 'involves the possibility of both bilateral and multilateral interaction' (page 5) between Japan, North Korea and other states, which improves the possibilities for comparative analysis. Second, it is a major issue, especially for Japan, and rates 'very highly on the agenda of major actors' (page 5). Third, since North Korea remains separated from the global economy, it 'provides a unique chance to isolate political initiatives from business ones' (page 6).

By examining multiple triangular relationships in this way, the book is able to raise a number of challenging questions regarding these countries' management of North Korea and Japan, especially concerning the Six-Party Talks. Several contributors discuss the role of human rights in Japanese diplomacy toward North Korea (i.e. the abduction issue) and wonder how it has functioned as perhaps the major domestic factor in Japan's North Korea policy. The general consensus is that, in pursuing the issue, Japan has been undermining its wider foreign policy objectives. Akaha argues that Japan 'needs to reconsider its current policy towards North Korea' (page 34). In particular, Tokyo 'should demonstrate that it is willing to forgo an immediate resolution of the abduction issue if doing so would enhance the probability of success of the multilateral talks in ending the nuclear crisis' (page 34). Zhang observes that 'Beijing has not hidden its disapproval of Tokyo's attempts to bring the issue to the Six-Party Talks' (page 105). Similarly, Hwang asserts that 'Tokyo's North Korea policy has in fact been hijacked by the Japanese public's preoccupation with the issue of the abductions' (page 67), while Park suggests that 'the government of Japan is virtually paralyzed by the abduction issue' (page 47). Sato, however, argues that the US has taken a different strategy, having both supported Japan's position and distanced itself from it, depending on 'its own calculations of the overall negotiation objectives, and divergence of opinions within the c administration' (page 85).

Hughes' analysis in the last chapter on the multilateralism of the Six-Party Talks is particularly interesting, given subsequent events (see Rozman 2007). Hughes is sceptical of 'the long-term value of the Six-Party Talks' multilateralism and other c US-inspired varieties of multilateral frameworks' (page 152). He argues that these frameworks have been hierarchical as opposed to egalitarian. In other words, they have been based on hegemonic rather than concert-type multilateralism (pages 152, 158–163) and are, as such, 'unlikely to succeed in their own objectives or to evolve to meet the same or different security challenges' (page 167). More recent events—North Korea's firing of missiles in July 2006 and its testing of a nuclear weapon in October 2006—have increased the pressure on the key actors to reinvigorate the negotiations, have put China more clearly at the centre of the talks and, arguably, have precipitated a more concert-oriented approach by the US. In 2007 the major players seem to have moved away from hegemonic multilateralism and strengthened the concert type, suggesting that Hughes' 'triumph of multilateral form over substance' (page 155) may be giving way, as he thought it should, to a more vigorous multilateralism. Yet, as Rozman (2007, 602) points out with regard to increased Sino-US cooperation and a new multilateral process, the agreement still requires 'vigorous leadership if it is not to fail'.

North Korea Policy does also have some weaknesses. As is sometimes the case with edited collections, the chapters are of uneven quality in style, theory and structure. The book also lacks an overall coherence. In particular, the chapters engage patchily with the first major theme (on the impact of the Cold War's ending, globalisation and changing power structures). Although the Hughes chapter is strong and provides an interesting and thought-provoking analysis, since it is quite different in style and structure from the other chapters, it reads more like a separate article than an integral part of the book. A brief concluding chapter at the end would have improved some of these problems.

Unfortunately, one of the book's most promising features turns out to be a major weakness. By examining Japan through its North Korea policy to determine how its foreign policy has evolved relative to its neighbours, the book establishes a repetitive pattern whereby contributors struggle to find new ways to explain how and why Japan has had minimal influence. Hagström and Söderberg accept in the introduction that 'none of the chapters find that Tokyo exercises any influence c the "Japan factor" still seems negligible' (page 12), and much of the book then re-explores this same territory. According to Zhao, for China, Japan is a secondary consideration behind the US and North Korea (page 109). Hwang contends that Japan has had 'little direct influence in Seoul's policies towards North Korea' (page 69). The territorial dispute limits Russo-Japanese cooperation according to Zhebin (page 127). And in the chapter on the EU, Rüdiger Frank notes that 'no explicit traces of Japanese influence on the EU's policy-making process could be found' (page 147). The subtitle of this chapter is the giveaway—'No Trace of Japanese Influence'.

Somewhat incongruously, however, Hagström and Söderberg still contend that 'in the end it is not certain that the evidence as summarized does attest unambiguously to the lack of power or influence of Japanese foreign policy' (page 14). This is due to the remaining tool for Japanese influence—its obduracy. The 'stubborn Japanese stance could', they argue, 'be interpreted as a Japanese exercise of obstructive power' (page 14). This thesis is similar to Hughes' (2006, 456) argument that Japan's influence in the region may in the end be to 'obstruct progress on a resolution to the nuclear issue'. As evidence, Hagström and Söderberg refer to the many chapters in the book which cite Koizumi's August 2002 summit as running against US goals. Still, they do caution that 'in the end Japanese policy might not be capable of moving the US one' and that Japan 'would probably have to drop the abduction issue and proceed with normalization and economic aid' (page 14). Many of the chapters do discuss the summit (though not always in much detail), and it is true that the summit was a sign of some Japanese foreign policy independence. But it does not follow that this summitry signals an ability on Japan's part to obstruct a resolution. Indeed, Japan may well have diminished its influence through its summitry gambit, and in any case subsequent developments, especially greater Sino-American cooperation, could well sideline Japan regardless. Nor does it follow that this evidence significantly muddies the book's otherwise fairly clear waters. For a range of reasons—historical and contemporary, domestic and international—the unambiguous message from the book's contributors is that Japanese foreign policy has had little or no trace of influence on the North Korean issue.

Overall, North Korea Policy provides a worthwhile contribution to the literature on both the issue of North Korea in East Asian international relations and on Japan's role in this issue. It brings together a wide range of perspectives and constructs an original approach to the topic. Although it does have weaknesses, its comprehensive analysis covers both the historical background as well as recent developments, and many of the questions it asks go to the heart of Japan's foreign relations and today's international relations in Northeast Asia.


Hagström, Linus and Marie Söderberg, 'Introduction: Japan, the Great Powers, and the Coordination of North Korea Policy'

1. Akaha, Tsuneo, 'Japan and the Recurrent Nuclear Crisis'

2. Park, Han S., 'The Rationales Behind North Korean Foreign Policy'

3. Hwang, Balbina Y., 'Seoul's Policy towards Pyongyang: Strategic Culture and the Negligibility of Japan'

4. Sato, Yoichiro, 'US North Korea Policy: the "Japan Factor" '

5. Zhao, Quansheng, 'Chinese North Korea Policy: A Secondary Role for Japan'

6. Zhebin, Alexander, 'Russian North Korea Policy: Old Conflicts Obstacle for Russo-Japanese Cooperation'

7. Frank, Rüdiger, 'The EU's North Korea Policy: No Trace of Japanese Influence'

8. Hughes, Christopher W., 'Japan and Multilateralism in the North Korea Nuclear Crisis: Road Map or Dead End?'


Hughes, Christopher W. (2006) 'The Political Economy of Sanctions Towards North Korea: Domestic Coalitions and International Systemic Pressures', Pacific Affairs, 79 (3): 455–481.

Rozman, Gilbert (2007) 'The North Korean Nuclear Crisis and U.S. Strategy in Northeast Asia', Asian Survey, 47 (4): 601–621.

About the Author

David Envall completed a BA (Hons) at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 1999. In Japan, he has studied at Sophia University and Hitotsubashi University, completing an MA at Hitotsubashi in 2004. In 2003 David taught on Japan's international relations at Tokyo International University, and he has also worked as a copy editor, corporate editor/writer, tutor and teacher. In 2005 he completed a PhD in the Department of Political Science, University of Melbourne. He is currently an associate lecturer in Politics at La Trobe University, Australia, as well as the book reviews editor at ejcjs. His research interests include Japanese political leadership and Japan's post-war security politics.

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Copyright: H.D.P. Envall
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