Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, DoD
- 'Steady as she goes' is the mantra of the Noda administration in Japan after the death of Kim Jong Il
- Without a clear policy toward the North, Japan and its allies risk losing the initiative once again to Pyongyang
- The death of Kim Jong Il puts Japan at risk of becoming hostage to a new cycle of demands and blackmail
"Steady as she goes" seems to be the mantra of the Noda administration in Japan after the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. The government is taking a watch and wait attitude, neither raising the level of Japan's military alert nor taking any measures to put pressure on the new North Korean leadership. Such a stance may be prudent in the confused days following Kim's death, but without a clear policy toward the North, Japan and its allies risk losing the initiative once again to Pyongyang and becoming hostage to a new cycle of demands and blackmail.
The Noda government is not alone in its cautious attitude. Its statement that Tokyo "hopes to take appropriate action as needed" meshes nicely with the White House's words of reassurance that the United States remains committed to stability and peace on the peninsula and in the region.
Both statements are designed to remove any speculation that either country is contemplating putting pressure on the North during the transition period. Each is being careful not to adopt a military posture that the North could misinterpret as a threat. While South Korea has put its forces on emergency alert, there is no indication so far that American troops are at an alert level, even those based in South Korea.
But the choice is not between only full military alert and total inaction. Kim's death does still present an opportunity for Washington, Seoul and Tokyo to take further steps to manage the longstanding menace from Pyongyang. Presenting a united front toward North Korea and its patron, China, will be particularly important during the coming days. The U.S., South Korea and Japan should openly assert that any provocative or destabilizing act by the North will be met with a strong military response.
Meanwhile, a new regime in Pyongyang, and the prospect of new talks at some point, presents a new opportunity for Japan to reclaim a role as a full partner in a multilateral effort to constrain the North. It's time for Tokyo to rethink its previous approach and find new areas of common ground with its allies.
The biggest challenge will be how Tokyo chooses to handle the core dispute between Japan and North Korea: the issue of abductees. During negotiations with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the North Korean government finally admitted to abducting at least 13 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, yet refused to account for all their whereabouts. Beside this lack of candor, the Kim regime even tried to pass off someone else's human remains as those of some of the abductees, which led Tokyo in 2008 to refuse to provide aid to the North per agreements in the six-party talks. This wound up isolating Japan within the talks on North Korean denuclearization, though Tokyo remained in consultation with both Seoul and Washington.
Tokyo certainly should not abandon the abductee issue, but it also should be willing to work on that problem in tandem with other security concerns that present an opportunity for Japan to make common cause with South Korea and the U.S. One such are would be the North's ongoing ballistic missile development program, which constitutes a far greater threat to Japan.
The North fired off several short-range missiles just a day after Kim Jong Il's death, showing that it will continue to try to keep its neighbors off balance. By pressing Washington and Seoul to raise this issue alongside nuclear concerns, Tokyo can reassert a role in the security-related aspect of the Korean problem.
Japan's leaders also may have another arrow in their quiver in coming years that will help them deal with the North. Until now, Tokyo has not had any independent ability to threaten the North should it attack Japan or be poised to do so. Instead, the Japanese military has steadily built up its ballistic missile defenses, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy. This week, however, Japan officially announced it will buy the stealth, fifth-generation F-35 attack fighter. Tokyo is also purchasing a handful of aerial tankers to allow mid-air refueling. In a decade or so, then, Japan will be well on its way to having the capability to attack North Korea or respond to any provocation by itself.
This might give Kim Jong Eun pause, and could be a wedge for Japan to drive home at the negotiating table. Should South Korea also purchase F-35s, which seems likely, then the younger Kim may find himself far less able to threaten his neighbors than his father was. The decision to make a radical change in policy and cut a deal while the cutting is good may win out over more recalcitrant elements in the leadership.
For now, the Noda administration is biding its time. Like its partners, it will assess a fluid and evolving situation. However, it needs to decide early on what its core interests are and policies will be, since it won't have the luxury of time forever.
Mr. Auslin is the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.