Was North Korea’s firing of a test missile over Japan a bid by Kim Jong-un to fan the flames of Japanese rearmament, force Washington to buckle to such demands and thereby drive a wedge between growing Sino-US cooperation in the nuclear standoff?
Kim may be especially keen on disrupting ties between Washington and Beijing after China unexpectedly backed a recent US move in the UN Security Council to slap harsher sanctions on Pyongyang.
“The North Koreans are always eager to drive wedges between the United States, Japan, South Korea and China,” says Daniel C. Sneider, an associate director of research for Stanford University’s Walter H Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center,
However, he added it would be an error to lavish too much credit on Kim for having “an elaborated idea” along these lines.
In the jigsaw of often undecipherable North Korean intentions, Sneider said Kim’s next move could easily be a bolt out of the blue to court Japan with a surprise conciliatory gesture.
“It’s not out of the question that North Korea might do some kind of a deal with the Japanese at the expense of others,” Sneider said. “ So it’s not a question of encouraging Japanese militarism. I don’t think the (missile test) is part of this.”
Pacifism alive and well
While some analysts believe Japan may finally be ready to shed its cocoon of post-war pacifism and re-arm in earnest, Sneider, who worked for years as the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo correspondent, sees no evidence of a shift in attitudes.
He adds that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is using the missile overflight to deflect public attention from a series of domestic political scandals that are puncturing his popularity at home.
“Japanese have been clearly rattled by what the North Koreans did. That’s real. But there’s a political advantage in shifting the conversation,” Sneider said.
He predicts Abe faces a domestic firestorm if he tries to have Japan’s military assume a real combat role overseas, including deployments against North Korea.
He cites the fierce backlash that followed revelations that a Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force engineering unit with the UN mission in South Sudan was in an a combat zone where there was actual shooting going on.
The non-combatant unit was unceremoniously withdrawn in May after five years.
If Japan’s government fumbled the public reaction to such a low-profile military deployment, Sneider wonders how Abe would handle a situation in which Japanese troops are engaged in actual combat overseas.
“There is a serious threat to Japan, not just from North Korea, but China. But is the Japanese public ready to act on it? I think that’s still pretty remote,” Sneider said.
Though Abe has requested a 2.5 percent increase in 2018 military spending over the initial defense budget for fiscal 2017, Sneider notes that Japan’s annual military outlays have essentially remained flat for more than a decade after various budgetary ploys have been removed.
He notes the yen’s recent depreciation against the dollar is also driving up the cost of any prospective purchases of advanced US hardware such as radar and missiles.
US-Japan military waltz
“The bottom line for Japan is that they are not going to move out of the framework of the security alliance with the United States,” Sneider argues. While there is speculation about Japan opting to develop an independent defense capability, including one involving nuclear weapons, Sneider doesn’t see this happening. “It’s too risky,” he said.
Sneider also points to stories in the Japanese-language press, little-noticed outside Japan, saying that Abe’s biggest worry is not that Trump will go to war with North Korea — but that the dealmaker US president will sign a unilateral pact with Kim that ignores Japanese interests.
He also warns that war on the Korean peninsula is still possible. This, despite former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon’s recent remarks, apparently reflecting an internal White House consensus, that “There’s no military solution” to the crisis in North Korea.
What if Trump chooses war?
What would the US do if Donald Trump decided to use force against North Korea?
Sneider noted in a recent article in the Chinese online journal Dunjiaodu and translated into English by Toyokeizai Online, that valuable insights can be gleaned from declassified documents published in 2010 by George Washington University’s National Security Archive.
The documents, which have drawn little attention in the current crisis, detail the military options considered by President Richard Nixon after a North Korean MiG fighter shot down a US EC-121 reconnaissance plane with 31 crew members aboard in April 1969.
Sneider wrote that Nixon’s choices included “an escalating menu of responses ranging from a naval blockade, to conventional attacks on targets such as airfields, ports, and power plants and a contingency plan, named Freedom Drop, for three options for the use of nuclear weapons against command and control centers, concentrations of ground forces, airfields, naval bases and missile facilities.”
A step nearly taken involved limited attacks against North Korean airfields that might reduce the risk of a wider war. But the Pentagon fretted that a partial take out of North Korea’s air force would still leave Pyongyang free to retaliate against US and South Korean forces and lead to general hostilities.
Nixon, worried about Moscow and Beijing’s reaction, decided in the end to merely resume the reconnaissance flights with fighter escorts. He also sent two US carriers to Korean waters in a toothless display of US power that rankled his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.
“Go big, or don’t go at all, seems to be the key lesson Kissinger and Nixon took from this incident,” Sneider noted in his article, quoting archival historian Robert Wambler, who prepared the US documents for release.
“Trump’s repeated references to options involving overwhelming force, even to the possible use of nuclear weapons, suggest that the plans developed in 1969 remain at least partly in place,” Sneider wrote.
“What these documents don’t tell us is what Donald Trump, as compared to past Presidents, may decide to do in a moment of real crisis. The past would seem to dictate caution and restraint but it also reminds us that the risk of war is real and the need for diplomacy is urgent,” Sneider concluded.