"A dagger thrust at the heart of Japan." That's how Maj. Gen. Klemens Wilhelm Jakob Meckel, a Prussian adviser to Tokyo, characterized Korea to the Japanese government in the 1880s. The peninsula lying just west across the Sea of Japan posed a threat to Tokyo's burgeoning regional strategy, having long been locked in China's orbit and now at risk of falling into Western hands. More important, it offered Japan an opportunity for strategic depth to keep enemies at bay. Over the next 65 years, Tokyo turned Korea into a conduit through which it projected power onto the mainland with unprecedented success, until the fall of the Japanese empire in 1945. Much has changed in the years since, but one thing hasn't: Korea, though now divided, is a threat that Japan fears will fall under the spell of a rival — or become a power in its own right.
In our second-quarter forecast, we said that North Korea would continue its outreach to South Korea and the United States to help break the U.S. pressure campaign. As the most dogged adherent of the tactic, Japan will find it difficult to adjust to the outreach and will hope that the warming ties with Pyongyang have a short shelf life.
For Japan, like China, Korea's division has been something of a blessing, keeping the "dagger" of the peninsula dull and diverted. By the same token, the warming ties between Pyongyang and Seoul since the start of the year have been a cause for concern. Each side is a menace in its own right. While North Korea is striving to shift the balance of power in Northeast Asia with its nuclear weapons program, South Korea represents a strong economic competitor sharing the U.S. security umbrella. And now that Pyongyang and Seoul are working together to set up direct negotiations between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, Japan fears losing its say in how the Korean Peninsula shapes up. The alarming prospect will compel Tokyo to stay as involved as it can in Washington's plans while also trying to improve its relations with North and South Korea alike.
Throwing Off the Balance
Korea's split into a U.S.-aligned South and a North partly shielded by China has been a good arrangement for Japan. The divide held Korea in a stasis that kept rivalry with Japan in check and meant that at least part of the peninsula was in friendly hands. But Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, which kicked off in earnest with a ballistic missile test in 1998 and a first nuclear test in 2006, have upset the balance. North Korea's developing arsenal threatens Japan's security — Pyongyang's first ballistic missile test flew over the Japanese islands, as have several subsequent launches. Furthermore, Tokyo fears that a credible nuclear deterrent could empower North Korea to try to dictate reunification on its own terms and then turn the united Korea away from the U.S. security alliance and toward China. In the unlikely event that Pyongyang trades away its nuclear program in a deal with Washington, this possibility could pan out.
Though North Korea's steady weapons tests have driven Japan to gradually move away from its long-standing pacifist foreign policy and to rebuild its military, it still lacks the defense capabilities to forge an independent foreign policy. As a result, it has faithfully followed the United States' lead in navigating North Korea's nuclear development. Tokyo kept in lockstep with Washington on key issues during the six-party talks in 2003-09, paying particular attention to the ballistic missile program that threatened it directly. And throughout the most recent round of nuclear tests, Japan has been the strongest advocate of sanctions and perhaps even military action on Pyongyang.
The surprise announcement of a potential U.S.-North Korea summit in the coming months, however, may force Japan to change tack. After decades of scurrying to adjust to shifts in the U.S. policy on North Korea, Japan now risks being left out of the process entirely, depending on Washington's next move. Tokyo worries that the direct negotiations between Kim and Trump may devolve into a bilateral dialogue between their two countries.
Scrambling to Find a Foothold
To stay in the loop, Japan will try to get as close a read as it can on the U.S. position and the prospects for a dialogue. It will then work to coordinate accordingly, urging Washington to stick to the maximum pressure campaign and continuing to pursue its own military normalization. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, caught off guard by the announcement of the talks, is already planning a trip to the U.S. capital in early April.
But following along with Washington may not be enough for Tokyo this time. Japan also will try to play another card: direct outreach to North Korea. Charting its own path to bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang will be a tall order for the Japanese government, whose counterparts in North and South Korea oscillate between frostiness and outright hostility toward Japan. Given Korean resentment over Japanese colonization and wartime behavior, it's hard to imagine Tokyo forging a strong relationship with South Korea's progressive president, let alone with North Korea's leadership. Nevertheless, the endeavor is neither unprecedented nor hopeless. As maritime disputes soured relations between Tokyo and Seoul in the 1950s and 1960s, North Korea reached out to Japan to foster economic ties and establish a program to repatriate North Koreans living in the island country. Junichiro Koizumi even traveled to Pyongyang during his tenure as Japan's prime minister for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2002 and secured the release of several Japanese abductees. In both cases, however, the cooperation was short-lived.
If Abe manages to hold his own bilateral talks with Kim alongside the U.S. outreach, the discussion would center on normalizing diplomatic ties and resolving the contentious issue of past North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals. These are thorny matters that will be difficult for Tokyo and Pyongyang to hammer out. Japan could use the promise of economic ties, perhaps in coordination with Russia's ongoing efforts, to encourage North Korea to work with it. Pyongyang, after all, is keen to diversify its partnerships to escape isolation and abject reliance on China — one of the main goals behind its nuclear missile initiative.
Even so, the path toward compromise is narrow, and conditions today are much different from what they were when Koizumi met with the Kim Jong Il. Unlike in 2002, for instance, Pyongyang now has a direct line to both Seoul and Washington and no longer needs Tokyo as an intermediary. Many of the disagreements that have kept Japan from improving its relations with North and South Korea, meanwhile, are still alive and well. Disputes linger over issues such as control of the Dokdo islands and the name of the East Sea. What's more, South Korea and Japan's relationship has come under increasing strain, even in the confines of the U.S. security framework. Though the two countries signed an intelligence-sharing agreement in 2016 after five years of back-and-forth, South Korean President Moon Jae In reiterated last year that his nation would not join an alliance structure with Japan and the United States. He also warned that Japan might use North Korea's nuclear program to advance its own military normalization.
Japan's hands are still largely tied on the North Korea question. For Tokyo, everything will depend on how the talks between Trump and Kim go, if they take place at all. Japan can afford neither to indulge North Korea's demands in hopes of a compromise nor to be the lone hard-liner against Pyongyang. Its best option will be to insert itself into the U.S.-North Korea talks as much as possible, lest a change in Washington's strategy toward Korea jeopardize its regional strategy.