With North Korea at the top of the news bulletins, there are many reasons to look at what all this must mean for Japan. Things are getting more serious in the region and we should look beyond “basketball diplomacy” missions, but our writer suggests reasons to keep a cool head next to a cantankerous, nuclear-armed dictator.
When NBA giant Dennis Rodman met the budding dictator Kim Jong-un to watch a jolly game of b-ball over tea and Coke recently, it looked for all the world like a fat piece of satire, like something from Kim Jong-un’s hilarious Twitter impersonator, KimJongNumberUn (One recent tweet read: “All I want is Obama to call me on the phone. Also, I would like a phone.”)
Rodman was actually there with the intrepid filmmakers from Vice Media filming a documentary (which premieres April 5 on HBO) and ended up calling the 29-year-old basketball-adoring despot of North Korea ‘a great leader’, ‘a really awesome guy’ and ‘a friend for life’. This was just after the guy had launched a nuclear weapons test, just before he had promised an ‘all out war’, and came in spite his family’s long-standing policy of national enslavement and starvation. But as long as he likes basketball, hey Rodman?
Since the visit (though probably not because of it!), North Korea has stepped up its confrontation with the US with some of the most incendiary language ever to come from the totalitarian state. Most recently, it has cut its last remaining link with South Korea and supposedly put its troops and missiles into ‘combat posture’. It has also declared its absolute right ‘to carry out preemptive nuclear strikes’ [my italics] against its enemies, which include South Korea and Japan, warning: ‘it would be a fatal mistake for Japan if it thinks it will be safe when a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula,’ adding that as ‘a stronghold of the aggressors … Japan will never be of an exception.’
One of Japan’s crimes, apparently, was that it ratified UN sanctions on North Korea in response to its weapons testing. According to North Korea, it is actually these sanctions that are the ‘act of war’ (and not the weapons testing that brought them about), which, if true, would bring North Korea into conflict with its old pal and patron, China (which has, for once, taken a tougher stance against North Korea by leading the sanctions).
Falling out of favour with China, which has kept North Korea on life-support for so long, is, needless to say, ill advised, but is precisely the sort of diplomacy one would expect from an upstart with a point to prove. Young Kim Jong-un has instead proved little other than that he likes to play both the eccentric and the madman on different days, and that he has few, if any, other political tools at his disposal.
The Japanese should, as Japan expert Gerald Curtis said in a talk at Meiji University in February, be leading by example as a “model of democratic development.”
Of course, experience tells us that he is probably not being serious when he promises to wage ‘all-out war’ on countries that are economically developed, militarily advanced and armed with a far superior nuclear deterrent (South Korea and Japan have nuclear deterrents by proxy). Up until now, he and his family have, for the most part, seemed far too attached to the opulent lifestyle to go ahead and martyr themselves in complete regime suicide.
Their numerous threats over the years have principally been used for political leverage (food aid in exchange for occasional compliance with UN resolutions, for example), which tends to suggest that the further he pushes this high-stakes game of brinkmanship, the more desperate he is getting.
His threats have, therefore, not been treated with the same degree of alarm as they might. When he visited artillery units on the west coast to remind the soldiers there to ‘throw all enemies into a burning cauldron’, Seoul’s Defense Ministry insisted it was all part of an elaborate set of mind games to try to ‘pressure South Korea and the US into changing their North Korea policies’.
Rather than be discouraged by the threat of large-scale nuclear annihilation, the US has instead coordinated efforts with South Korea and Japan to ramp up the pressure on Pyongyang. Japan has blacklisted North Korean trade banks, a counter-measure that is, along with the sanctions, necessarily punitive but gravely unsatisfactory for the already emaciated population of North Korea – 3 inches shorter than their South Korean brothers and sisters on account of malnourishment and still living in complete darkness.
Other counter-measures, however, such as those taken by one third of local governments in Japan to withdraw funding to Korean schools in Japan, have shown not alarm, but a muddled panic (Kanagawa cited the nuclear test as its main motivation for withdrawal). Rather than punishing Korean children who live in Japan and speak Japanese for the crimes of their illegitimate leader at ‘home’, the Japanese government should, as Japan expert Gerald Curtis said in a talk at Meiji University in February, be leading by example as a “model of democratic development”.
The Japanese know themselves what it means, after all, to feel expendable and disposable – not only have their fellow citizens been abducted and their skies been scorched with the clouds of sporadic North Korean missiles, but they have also long had to deal with North Korea’s expressed intent of wiping them out. Keeping a cool head in this environment means not turning to panic, but upholding cherished principles as much as possible, subverting tyranny with humour, and making sure to ready a coordinated international relief effort for the collapse of a rancid regime.
Main image: Looking into North Korea from the Cheolwon Peace Observatory by Wandering Soles Photography (flickr/Some rights reserved)