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Japan's Fear Of N Korea Leads To Support Of Iraq War

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

Japan - N Korea Breakthrough Upsets Bush Hawks (Sept 2002)
(IPS) TOKYO -- Kanae Moriyama, 51, does not the support U.S. plans for a war against Iraq, but is all for U.S. military involvement in case North Korea attacks Japan.

"Japan is heavily reliant on U.S. military protection if attacked by North Korea," says Moriyama, director of a computer software company who also owns a home in the United States. "I would definitely support U.S. troops entering North Korea."

In many ways, Moriyama's different stand on these two international security issues today -- Iraq and North Korea -- highlight the position that Japan itself faces.

In truth, this country, largely a pacifist one and the staunchest ally of the United States in the region, faces one of its worst post-war diplomatic quandaries in the looming war against Iraq.

Washington looks at Tokyo as one of its strongest supporters in the region.

Because of this decades-long alliance, "there is pressure for Japan to take steps to ease the isolation faced by its closest ally, the United States from opposition in Asia to an attack on Iraq," points out Naoki Usui, a veteran defense writer. "But that's too much to ask from Tokyo at this time."

But while Tokyo is wary is going that far on Washington's behalf, many Japanese' feelings of insecurity -- and possibly attitudes toward U.S. plans on Iraq -- are being boosted by worries about North Korea.

In recent weeks, Pyongyang has threatened to pull out of the armistice accord with South Korea, announced the re-operation of nuclear plant that experts fear is part of its nuclear weapons program, and test-fired a missile.

The Japanese public's current aversion to a war with Iraq remains high -- a poll by the Mainichi newspaper over the weekend showed 84 percent against a U.S.-led attack.

But North Korea's latest acts of brinkmanship are shifting the focus in northeast Asia to fears about a nuclear attack in its own backyard -- and causing some Japanese to say it is safer to keep its U.S. security umbrella intact by being supportive of Washington on Iraq.

"There is no doubt that Iraq symbolizes what North Korea is for Japan and South Korea," explains Professor Taro Yayama, political commentator and author. "Support for the United States is strongly influenced by North Korean threats here."

T. W. Kang, an expert on South Korea and northeast Asia, says a call for a stronger Japan could be ripe for public support this time -- given the anger against the abduction of Japanese nationals to North Korea, the rising frustration over Japan's loss of economic power, and a sense of drift among the people.

The test-firing of a North Korean short-range missile on Monday last week, although it was seen as a routine winter military drill, has rekindled the spectra of an attack by the impoverished Pyongyang leadership that now feels threatened by the United States.

An attack would have disastrous consequences for both Japan and South Korea. "Japan does not possess any defense system to shield itself against a long-range missile fired by North Korea. Nor could it organize an evacuation of the targeted area after a missile if fired because there is not enough time," said the 'Asahi' newspaper on Friday.

Meantime, the Iraqi and North Korean crises have begun to weaken the tight triangular relationship between South Korea, Japan and the United States -- a pillar of East Asian security for decades.

"There are policy differences appearing between the three countries. North Korea probably sought this disruption in its recent missile firing," explains Hideya Kurata, associate professor at Kyorin University.

The new South Korean government of President Roh Moo-hyun is against tough action against North Korea and favors unconditional engagement with it. Its stand differs from Washington and is drawing suspicion from some analysts in Japan, which is worried by a possible attack by Pyongyang.

Japan has so far been supportive of a dialogue on North Korea but reticent about its stand on Iraq. Its long-term position, however, may be shaped by its own fears about Pyongyang.

On Sunday, Taro Asia, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called on Japan to support the United States even in the absence of a second resolution in the UN Security Council on Iraq.

"In terms of priority, we have to weigh heavily on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty concerning the security of Japan," he said.

Already, Japan has announced it is reconsidering its commitment to building light-water reactors in North Korea given the recent missile test by Pyongyang.

But Shizuka Kamei, a senior LDP politician, opposes the war, fearing the subsequent spread of terrorism if Japan falls into the same conflict mode.

Still, Hideki Kasei, an international relations expert well-known for his conservative views, says Japan sees the defeat of Iraqi President Saddam H ussein as an appropriate warning for North Korea.

"Washington's war in Iraq will be short and end in defeat for Hussein. It will force North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, to give up his nuclear weapons build-up, leading to peace in East Asia," he says.

Some experts also say that Japan must be firm against North Korea, to show Tokyo's indirect support for the United States in the Iraq crisis.

As for North Korea, concerns about it are also fueling criticism in Japan of Roh's policies as having nationalistic undertones. "There are suspicions in Japan that Roh wants to see a united Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons. This could leader to nuclear weapons build-up in region," explains Kasei.

"Distrust between the main partners in East Asian security is the last thing we need in the region given the nuclear blackmail in the region," says Kang. "The way the United States handles Iraq has urgent consequences for the region."

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Albion Monitor March 11, 2003 (

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