US sailors stand amid wrecked planes at Pearl Harbor after a Japanese attack, watching as USS Shaw explodes in the center background, 7 December 1941. Photo: US Navy, now in the collections of the National Archives.

North Korea warned this week that ongoing US-South Korea air exercises have made war “inevitable” on the Korean peninsula.

Most Western analysts still doubt that Pyongyang would make what’s characterized as a suicidal decision to go to war with the US and its allies.

But Eri Hotta, a former research fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, sees disturbing parallels between the current North Korean situation and Japan on the eve of World War II.

Hotta, the author of “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy,” noted in a Q&A with 38 North, a respected website on North Korean affairs, that Japan’s leaders made a fateful decision to bomb Pearl Harbor even though nearly everyone in its national security establishment thought that it would lose a war with the US.

“I see similarities to the situation now with the DPRK,” Hotta told 38 North interviewer Jeff Barron. She noted that the US slapped sanctions on Japan in the lead up to hostilities just as it is doing now with North Korea. In Japan’s case, she said the move triggered a chain reaction involving different power factions that the government couldn’t control.

Excerpts from the interview are below:

Jeff Baron: How important were sanctions in Japan’s decision to strike first against the United States, including the oil embargo imposed by the US in August 1941, at a time that Japan got 93 percent of its oil from the US?

Eri Hotta: Very important, for two reasons.

First, the oil sanctions gave the younger, mid-level military officers, those tasked with developing military plans—and the people who really thought in apocalyptic terms—the basis to argue that war with the United States was inevitable: ‘Look, the US is squeezing us dry. Each day the Navy is burning 400 tons of oil—we’ll have less tomorrow than we have today. So the time to attack is sooner rather than later—we have to be able to attack while we’re still able.’

Even though there were those who were convinced Japan would be defeated, they couldn’t turn back because the move to war was practically on autopilot by then. Well, it had the appearance of being on autopilot, though of course the Emperor could have said, ‘I’m vetoing this decision.’ But the Emperor was worried about a coup d’etat if he did that.

The second reason is that when discussing sanctions, the senior people—the decision-makers in the cabinet and military—were afraid of appearing weak and indecisive in the eyes of the younger officers.

In truth, almost nobody in the right frame of mind actually wanted to go to war. It was a bluff that gained its own momentum. But having this resolve to go to war—and that’s quite different from being prepared to go to war—having the resolve to go to war can impart its own momentum.

JB: Is it reasonable to think some of this may be going on in the DPRK? That some decision-makers might be concerned about appearing weak and indecisive before those who are pushing for apocalyptic action?

EH: I see the analogy. The leader of North Korea might be concerned with appearing stronger than he really is. Others may be caught up in the same dynamic. We have no way of knowing for certain. But that’s the way it was in Japan 1941, and I see similarities to the situation now with the DPRK.

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