Security picture shifts as Japan asserts itself

By Suvendrini Kakuchi, Asia Times, 8 April 1999

TOKYO—Reports of North Korean spy ships trying to infiltrate Japan last week are fueling potentially dramatic changes in the security and diplomatic picture in Asia, according to analysts here.

Already, the incident is spurring widespread concern in Japan about a threat from North Korea—and is coming in handy in efforts to boost the duties and powers of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) tasked to protect the nation.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force was ordered to chase away the intruding ships—the first time since the defense unit was created in 1954.

By law, SDF actions are strictly limited to defensive action son behalf of Japan, and the military is barred from firing anything other than warning shots except in self-defense.

Japan's Defense Agency chief, Hosei Norata, called Monday for a further build-up of defense capabilities, including rushing new legislation through the current parliamentary session that would allow the SDF to move more swiftly without prior legislative approval in times of emergency.

The military establishment has seized upon the North Korean threat to back up its arguments for boosting the SDF's role—something that Pyongyang itself is well aware of.

Indeed, North Korea, in a letter to the Japanese government, on Saturday denied its involvement in the March 23 ship incident, calling it fiction invented by Japanese reactionaries.

Such a response from North Korea was predictable, said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromi Nonaka.

The Japanese parliament is currently in the final stage of debate on implementing new Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines that will allow the SDF to play a more active role with American troops in Asian hot spots.

The Japanese media say Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is trying to submit to the parliament some emergency legislation, once the pending bills to cover the updated Japan-U.S. defense guidelines are approved.

The government reaction in the parliament is very welcome, says analyst Kazuhiro Araki, of the Modern Korea Research Institute, who points out that the latest episode followed Pyongyang's even more frightening missile test conducted over the Sea of Japan by Pyongyang inAugust.

The recent incident is an indication that the North Korean threat is a real one, Araki asserts, in a reaction increasingly common here these days.

The Japanese daily Sankei Shinbun suggested that the mysterious ships, that were chased away by the Maritime SDF were on a mission of destruction, targeting the Japanese parliament or the center of Japanese commercial business.

Quoting unnamed spy specialists, the newspaper reported that while the North Korean ships were escaping, some 10 infiltrators entered Japanese shores along the Pacific Ocean. While other observers say this is not confirmed, they grant that the ships could have been trying to drop off spies.

The situation is tense and must be taken extremely seriously, says Araki. North Korean spies have been coming into Japan to collect military data on South Korea and to enter South Korea on terrorist missions for many years now and Japan has been unable to stop it.

The new security concerns provide leverage for Tokyo to stop relying so heavily on the U.S. for its Asian diplomacy, and to go ahead with building Japan's own bilateral ties with its neighbors, say Japanese foreign policy experts.

Since its defeat in the Pacific War, Japan has relied on Washington to conduct its Asian foreign policy, writes Tokyo University professor Takashi Inoguchi in an opinion piece in Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's leading financial daily.

But this reliance has in many ways become unwieldy for Japan in modern times, analysts say.

Japan has threatened U.S. interests in Asia during the third quarter of the 20th century when it began to look as if Japan might be getting inordinately interested in Asia and might pursue a security policy distinct from U.S. policy, Inoguchi says.

Inoguchi points out that based on this notion, Japanese premiers and foreign ministers increased their visits to other Asian nations from only 15 in 1978 to 59 in 1988.

A major development is closer ties with South Korea, Asia's second economic power after Japan, and a country with which Tokyo has uneasy ties due to its occupation of the Korean peninsula decades ago.

Obuchi's visit to Seoul on March 20, despite violent student protests, in fact ended up being unusually warm and forward-looking.

The leaders released a communique that called for cooperation on dealing with North Korea, with Japan promising to consider loosening its economic sanctions against the Stalinist state if a peaceful dialogue were resumed.

Kim and Obuchi also outlined an economic agenda on economic cooperation, including a bilateral investment treaty that will also lift import restrictions on all Japanese products from June 30 this year.

Some analysts see this as pursuit by both sides of strategic ties independent of the American factor in the region. Economist Junko Mizuno, in fact, sees closer economic ties as a step closer to a free-trade zone that is in the making between the two countries.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the biggest industrial economies in East Asia, do not belong to any free-trade grouping. But to many in the region, deeper economic integration would be yet one more step toward lessening dependence on the U.S.