Japan’s two-track North Korea policy in a shambles

After repeated and renewed provocations by the North, the gig is up for Abe and his two-track approach with the North.

Children watch TV screens reporting North Korea''s rocket launch at an electronics store in Tokyo
Children watch TV screens reporting North Korea's rocket launch at an electronics store in Tokyo, on February 7 [AP]

Last week, North Korea delivered another shock to the international community with its release of photographs, through its state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, claiming that it has perfected the process of miniaturising nuclear warheads to be placed on its ballistic missiles.

If accurate, such claims would effectively provide the North with short to medium-range capabilities to deliver a nuclear strike aimed at either South Korea or Japan. Pyongyang has long maintained the capability to strike Japan conventionally with its missiles, but these new developments would prove to be a game changer – not only for Tokyo but for the region more broadly.

North Korea’s somewhat predictable cycle of provocations – underscored by its announcement of miniaturisation, along with its recent nuclear and missile tests – has jolted the United States, South Korea and Japan to look at ways to bolster their deterrent to further aggression from Pyongyang.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council – under heavy pressure from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo – unanimously adopted the toughest set of sanctions against the North in years (PDF).

There is also renewed talk of potentially deploying a more sophisticated – and controversial – anti-ballistic missile system to the Korean peninsula to deter Pyongyang from attempting to leverage its technological advances for “nuclear blackmail”.

A unique relationship

But while the North’s isolation – both regional and international – continues, there is another glaring defeat for the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Since his election in late 2012, Abe has stressed the importance of resolving the long-running unresolved saga of kidnapped Japanese nationals brought to North Korea. During the 1970s and 1980s, several Japanese nationals were abducted from coastal areas of Japan and other parts of the world.

As tensions continue to increase on the Korean peninsula, it is time now for Abe to cut his losses and maintain a united front alongside the US and South Korea in deterring the Kim Jong-un regime.


Despite repeated efforts to resolve the matter, Tokyo has been unable to achieve much traction. The closest Japan has come to closure on the matter was the return of five children from the abductees, which followed former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landmark meeting with Kim Jong-il in 2002.

Meanwhile, Abe staked a considerable amount of diplomatic capital on resolving the abductions issue and extended an olive branch to the North in 2014 with the relaxation of unilateral sanctions in return for Pyongyang’s agreement to launch an official inquiry into the matter.

Tokyo also loosened regulations against North Korean ships entering Japan’s ports and promoted the exchange of humanitarian aid. There was even some talk that Abe might visit North Korea, if a breakthrough could be achieved.

Abe stressed that this approach to the North was focused solely on the abduction issue, and would have no impact on Japan’s united stance – along with the US and South Korea – against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Despite this insistence, both Washington and Seoul watched Japan’s approach to the North with concern and latent disapproval.

A risky two-track approach

Now, after repeated and renewed provocations by the North, the gig is up for Abe and his two-track approach with the North. Last month, Japan imposed retaliatory sanctions on the North following its missile test – staged as “satellite launch”.

Pyongyang responded by terminating the inquiry on the abductions, effectively cutting the lifeline Abe had worked so hard to establish. The hostility between the two sides has increased even more after the subsequent imposition of new UNSC sanctions and the attention-seeking news release by the North highlighting their advances on miniaturisation.

OPINION: Now North Korea has nothing to lose

In retrospect, it was not too hard to see this end – as both tracks of Japan’s policy on North Korea consistently overlapped despite Tokyo’s attempts to decouple them.

In fact, Tokyo previously pushed for this intersection as evidenced by the inclusion of abduction discussions on the sidelines of the now moribund Six Party Talks.

With denuclearisation talks effectively dead, the Abe government gambled with a more risky two-track approach to North Korea, by hedging between a hawkish line on Pyongyang’s missile and weapons of mass destruction programmes and a more dove-ish approach on the abductions.


This gamble has failed. As tensions continue to increase on the Korean peninsula, it is time now for Abe to cut his losses – at least for the time being – and maintain a united front alongside the US and South Korea in deterring the Kim Jong-un regime.

In addition to bolstering trilateral deterrence, Japan should also continue to seize the positive – but fragile – momentum with South Korea that has been established after last year’s important agreement on resolving the issue of “comfort women”.

Specifically, Seoul and Tokyo should look at tightening the net on the North through agreeing to bilateral pacts on military information sharing and cross servicing.

The two sides would also benefit from undertaking more serious discussions, alongside their US ally, on contingency planning in the event of regime collapse in the North.

A united front would also put more pressure on China – the North’s only ally – to concretely support, rather than paying mere lip service to, the idea of denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

J Berkshire Miller is the director of the Council on International Policy and is a fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.