International Herald Tribune
The North Korea game
TUESDAY, JULY 18, 2006
HONG KONG In the end, and thanks to the issue's coincidence with the G-8 summit meeting, China and Russia signed up to a compromise UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea's missile tests.

But there is more rhetoric than substance in the sanctions against Pyongyang. The episode has left China looking responsible and winning brownie points in Washington. But Japan's leading role in pushing for much stronger action has irritated neighbors and done nothing to advance the cause of its membership of the Security Council.

The tough line is likely to further delay resumption of the six-party talks on the more important issue of North Korea's nuclear developments. It has made China more suspicious of Japanese policy and increased the already wide gap with South Korean perceptions of how to deal with the North.

There has been a worrying element of hyperbole in Japan's recent reaction to the missile tests. It is little comfort that these have been driven by domestic politics as hawkish Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe seeks to consolidate his front-running position in the race to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister in September.

It is of particular concern at a time when there are so many other issues raising mutual suspicions in Northeast Asia. Abe's reference, immediately following the North's missile tests, to Japan's self-defense right to a pre-emptive strike against a planned attack, may in theory have been justifiable. But the timing was clearly designed for publicity seeking and had the inevitable effect of provoking China.

Japan has long suffered, often in silence, from endless Chinese, and to a lesser degree, South Korean baiting on history textbooks and past sins that have clearly been aimed at their domestic audiences. Japan also runs a close second to the United States in North Korean demonology. But quasi-pacifist Japan's admirable unwillingness to be provoked seems to have run its course - and not just in the understandable but undiplomatic visits of Koizumi to the Yasakuni shrine of war dead.

One might perhaps argue that if Japan, like China, needs one enemy to be the butt of its national frustrations it is better to focus on North Korea than a more important country.

There is a strong basis in North Korea's refusal to make amends for the kidnap of Japanese citizens. But the configuration of interests in Northeast Asia is now such that Tokyo's unilateral targeting of Pyongyang, however undeserving of sympathy it is, can only damage relations with all three neighbors - China, South Korea and Russia.

Those who want stability in Northeast Asia must accept that a corollary is that at best the regime in North Korea will change gradually and in a way that is not contrary to the interests of either Beijing or Seoul.

China's embarrassment over its failure to deter North Korea from missile tests and over the North's swift rejection of the Security Council resolution does not mean that it will desert Pyongyang.

To both Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang is more a minor difficulty than a danger and is a useful card when dealing with Washington. Anything that increases Chinese-Japanese suspicions can only help hardliners in North Korea who want to see a cold war between the two regional powers.

Meanwhile disagreements over how to deal with Pyongyang are encouraging nationalists in the South to stir up the issue of the disputed Takeshima/Tokdo islands.

It is not even certain that a Japanese hard line is helpful to the U.S. administration. China suspects that Japan's position is partly to win favor in Washington as well as an excuse for its own military build-up.

But the United States seems in two minds over how best to handle North Korea. For it, the nuclear issue is far more important than the missiles. The North already has scores of missiles that can hit Japan, just as it has thousands of artillery pieces and missiles that can hit the South.

Both countries rely on the U.S. umbrella as well their own conventional weapons to deter attack which could only be suicidal - which Kim Jong Il is not. On their own, longer range rockets, even if they eventually work, change little for nearby Japan.

Japan has legitimate reasons to build up its defenses in light of China's naval and missile build-up. Likewise there is a strong case for cooperating with the United States on a missile shield.

But Tokyo would do well to be upfront about these issues rather than use North Korean missiles as a pretext.

Japan deserves a larger say in global affairs, including a Security Council seat. But this is not the way to go about it.