[Asia’s Next Page] Japan’s Position on a United Korea: Ambivalence or Realpolitik?

Northeast Asia stands at a critical juncture amid glaring uncertainty and chaos wrought by geopolitical forces not only in the region but also globally.

A wide range of factors have resulted in increased threat levels in the region.

  • The ongoing Sino-American rivalry;
  • Debilitating aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected the stability of the region;
  • the Russian-Chinese collusion that began before the invasion of Ukraine;
  • China’s continued tacit approval of Russian actions during the ongoing war in Ukraine;
  • the growing perception of Japan as a global power and growing hostilities with certain neighbors;
  • South Korea elects conservative Yoon Suk-yeol as the country’s 20the president, who raised hopes and fears; and
  • North Korea’s resumption of ballistic missile testing (and a possible seventh nuclear test).

To make matters worse, in mid-2022 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) did not adopt additional sanctions against North Korea due to vetoes by Russia and China after Pyongyang fired a kill ballistic missiles, breaking the self-imposed moratorium on banned intercontinental ballistic missile testing.

However, two other neighbors, Japan and South Korea, regretted the Council’s split vote and said such actions not only threaten peace and security, but undermine the foundations of the global non-proliferation regime. This unanimous stand against North Korea by two historically antagonistic states belies tenuous ties between them.

The election of a new government in South Korea and early rhetoric from Yoon have revived hopes for normalizing relations with Japan. Moreover, North Korea’s continued nuclear build-up has accelerated the denuclearization debate — and ignited the Korean peninsula’s ever-present hope for unification.

From the Japanese point of view, to what extent is “United Korea” a viable option? What is the other side of the coin for Japan, and would be its diplomatic position?

The Realpolitik of Tokyo

Japan officially supports the full implementation of relevant UNSC resolutions for the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. He says he is “coordinating closely with the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) and cooperating with the international community, including China and Russia.”

However, there is no explicit mention of Korean unification in Japan’s diplomatic discourse. Tokyo follows separate policies for the North and the South.

Japan stress reconfiguration of normal relations with South Korea despite historical tensions. Wartime Korean workers’ compensation issues during the Japanese occupation and comfort women continue to plague ties. According to Japan, the 1965 treaty settled all compensation issues. And the 2015 South Korea-Japan agreement which was actually set aside by Seoul East considered resolved “finally and irreversibly” by Japan.

Their historical conflict too reversed on the economic scene in 2019 (the ongoing “whitelist” dispute) and has strained the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).

Both states are conventional allies of the United States and participants in major international forums, the latest as observers at the Madrid summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ideally, they should spearhead multilateral cooperation in the region (a serious shortcoming) rather than exacerbate past tensions. They share complicated ties with their two nuclear neighbours, China – a mixed global challenge, and North Korea – an unpredictable and immediate regional threat. However, the prospects for cooperation are fragile.

Hope for improvement

President Joe Biden, center, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the NATO summit in Madrid, Wednesday, June 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Under former South Korean President Moon Jae In and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, relations reached a climax. Yoon’s adherence to the US-led Indo-Pacific security architecture (the free and open Indo-Pacific vision is the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy) and his emphasis on normalizing relations, as well as the American push for trilateral cooperation, have instilled hope.

Kishida, who is energy Japan’s global political outlook seeks to revitalize nascent diplomatic and security ties in the region. He has Underline restore good bilateral relations with South Korea as an urgent need.

With North Korea, the lack of diplomatic relations, its ongoing military aggression, and the issue of kidnapping Japanese citizens ensured Tokyo’s hardline stance. Bilateral outreach is limited on broader concerns, such as complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) and access to UN-sanctioned humanitarian assistance.

Find a common direction

Japan has expressed its intention to comprehensively resolve bilateral issues with North Korea, including the “unhappy past”, in accordance with the Pyongyang Declaration signed between former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The primary objective of the 2002 agreement was the normalization of relations.

Fifteen years later, as Moon Jae In signaled South Korea’s shift to dialogue with the North, Prime Minister Abe, who was Koizumi’s deputy chief cabinet secretary in 2002, was following the assumption that “maximum pressureagainst an isolated North Korea works best for Japan.

Kishida, like Abe, does not rely on softer tactics. And breaking with the old leaders, he openly declared Japan’s plans to strengthen security cooperation with “like-minded” countries.

Meanwhile, he set out a new national security strategy to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and significantly increase the defense budget. At the same time, he is to push for the complete denuclearization of North Korea while working with the United States, South Korea, the United Nations, and the international community as a whole to achieve this goal.

This is important in light of the Russia-China-North Korea collusion. North Korea is being exploited as a pawn in the larger geopolitics while Moscow and Beijing provide strategic protection for the Kim regime. The renewal of the China-North Korea friendship treatyalso, showcases an intimacy in the Kim-Xi relationship.

Thus, for Kishida, working to strengthen ties between the United States and South Korea to deter North Korean aggression appears to be an absolute necessity, which Yoon echoes.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae In.

Uniting the Korean Peninsula

Amid such dynamics, the issue of a united Korea needs to be revisited, especially since any changes in Northeast Asia’s security architecture would have a direct impact on Japanese interests.

Moreover, it is important for Japan to build a more coherent Korean Peninsula policy beyond its bilateral engagements with Seoul and Pyongyang. Such a policy should to make room for potential regime change in North Korea, or North-South unification in the future, with different visions of what that might look like.

Here, an ideal prospect would be the Kim regime’s decision to denuclearize and build greater openness. This could lead to improved inter-Korean ties over time and more exchanges with Japan and the United States as Seoul and Tokyo work to resolve their antagonistic history.

Such developments would create a synergy of closer ties between Japan and the two Koreas, ultimately putting Tokyo’s ties with the peninsula on a better footing.

However, the chances of such North Korean denuclearization, which would spearhead this vision, are extremely low.

As much as Moon Jae In’s resolute attempt to unify Korea ー what some call his preoccupation with leaving a lasting legacy ー deserves praise, his failure also weakened the same vision. Hawk Yoon’s election dashed any hopes of a nuanced North-South detente, especially one in which North Korea would gain even a semblance of an advantage.

In the current circumstances, there are two main possibilities for unification:

  • Dissolution of the North Korean regime, or
  • war (limited).

The feasibility, or even the intention, of an extended dialogue process seems remote. Adding China, Russia, the United States and Japan to the mix only complicates the already illusory goal. No one would be willing to give up their grip on power.

Unification ー Fantasy or protracted struggle?

This is especially true in the current scenario. Pyongyang, with a Chinese advantage, would not subscribe to a unification led by the South. And a Northern-led process would certainly be geared towards Beijing’s game plan, and therefore unacceptable to the United States, South Korea and Japan.

One question that arises is: would a nonpartisan or neutral United Korea choose a democratic configuration? Given that South Korea is a thriving democracy and the other an impoverished state, the answer should be obvious. However, this would still depend on the circumstances of the unification.

For Japan, in the event of a united Korea, age-old hostilities would not disappear but could be reaffirmed with renewed fervor. In particular, Japan would fear that China would exploit historical animosities of a unified Korea, which complement Beijing’s own construction of victimhood against Japan, to create instability. It would be an unsuitable outcome for Japan, which is beginning to reposition itself and assert itself geopolitically as a global entity.

However, as long as US troops are stationed in Japan and the Seventh Fleet remains in the Pacific, the US military will be predominant in the region. A unified Korea aligned with the United States is therefore a best-case scenario for Japan.

In particular, a unified korea could very well be incentivized to retain the North’s nuclear weapons. After all, it would still be in the midst of great power competition. Japan should be aware of these aspects when developing its Korean Peninsula policy, even though it always tries to revise its post-war constitution to match the present day.

Ideally, notwithstanding potentially dire scenarios and unexpected repercussions, and however remote the eventual possibility of reunification, a peace process that requires the will of the Korean people should not be abandoned.


Author: Jagannath Panda

Find Dr. Panda’s Chronicle [Asia’s Next Page] on JAPAN Forward.

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