North Korean missile fires up the old East Asian rivalries

By J Brooks Spector 18 December 2012

While attention in America has closed around its newest national firearms tragedy, and as South Africans are targeted like that proverbial laser beam on what has been happening in Mangaung, a series of developments in East Asia may be creating new political and military realities on the ground – and in the skies overhead. North Korea’s successful missile test, a startling election outcome in Japan, some muscle flexing by an increasingly resurgent China, and an impending election in South Korea are – together – shaking the post-Cold War consensus in the region. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a broader look.

Start with the just-finished Japanese parliamentary election. After three years of drift by the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the right-centre Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, together with its electoral buddy the lay Buddhist-linked Komeito has totally overwhelmed the flailing DPJ.

Abe comes from real LDP political “nobility”. His father was a long-serving senior party figure, and his grandfather was its first prime minister. Nobusuke Kishi, his grandfather, served as a World War II cabinet minister and was imprisoned as a war criminal. He was never tried or convicted and went on to be prime minister.

In this newest election, the LDP effectively turned the former governing party into a rump delegation in the country’s parliament. The LDP returns as the country’s governing party – back to a place it held for nearly the entire post-war period from 1955 onward into the 21st century, except for eleven months in 1993 and 1994 and the three-year period from 2009 to 2012.

In fact, the DPJ fared so badly prime minister and party leader Yoshihiko Noda resigned as party leader, acknowledging responsibility for this defeat. While some of the party’s notables hung on to their parliamentary seats, Naoto Kan (at one time an unusual bureaucratic hero in a tainted blood bank products scandal and the prime minister during the tsunami/earthquake/nuclear reactor triple disasters) lost his parliamentary district in his party’s debacle.

The DPJ’s defeat is more than just the LDP’s resurgence from the wilderness. This election has also been the parliamentary breakthrough for the Japan Restoration Party – a rightist party that is openly pushing for a new, more assertive Japan in its Asian neighbourhood. This new party has become the parliament’s third-largest party, barely behind the thoroughly bloodied DPJ. Controversial ex-Tokyo metropolitan area governor Shintaro Ishihara, together with Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, lead the Japan Restoration Party. Both men have outsized personalities in a nation where politicians are more usually button-down “suits”.

Meanwhile, the LDP’s leader and its all-but-certain prime minister, Shinzo Abe, already had one notably unsuccessful stint as prime minister back in 2007, but he and his party have just been awarded a second chance by an electorate that is desperate over the country’s economic malaise and in despair over the gormless DPJ. In his previous turn in power, Abe managed to pick fights with both China and South Korea and turn off Japanese voters. By the time he had surrendered the job, he was ready to enter a hospital for treatment for acute stress.  

Although a final count is not yet complete, together with the Komeito, the LDP will almost certainly have a super majority that will allow it to override negative votes by parliament’s upper house. By contrast, the DPJ will only have about 77 of the 308 seats it won in 2009, while the new Japan Restoration Party will have at least 53.

Despite his earlier miscues, Abe appeal to the party’s most conservative wing remains substantial, in particular those who have supported his stance towards China over those disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Moreover, this time around, he campaigned on a revival of those old-style public-works projects that were a key element of the appeal (and its patronage network) of the old LDP in its heyday. This time, in his first comments after victory, Abe said his first priority would be to beat the country’s deflationary economy, including pressure on the Bank of Japan to set expansionary inflation targets. Abe’s economic focus – if not his party’s geopolitical ideas – have been getting early applause from financial markets. 

On that latter geopolitical point, the LDP also campaigned on changing provisions in the country’s peace constitution – something certain to gain the full attention of China and South Korea. Many in those nations continue to harbour suspicions of Japan’s deeper intentions, dating back to their countries’ experiences during World War II at the hands of the Japanese Empire. While the new government may wait to move on defence moves until after upper house elections this July, the LDP may also reach out to the new Japan Restoration Party and its hawkish leadership for support.

According to observers, this time around, Japanese voters seemed supportive of the LDP’s vows to build a stronger, more assertive country in response to increasing pressure on Japan from China and the threat of North Korea’s rocket launches. Abe has said he will protect Japan’s “territory and beautiful seas” – a clear reference to that on-going dispute over those Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The party also has said it hopes to strengthen the country’s Self-Defense Forces and, crossing a half-century political line, re-designate them as a “military” force. Moreover, the party wants to increase the country’s defence budget and permit Japanese troops to participate in “collective self-defence” operations with its allies in actions not directly related to Japan’s own defence – another line crossed.

Just to rub a bit more salt in the wounds, during his previous time as leader, Abe insisted there was no proof Japan’s military had ever coerced any Chinese or Korean women into prostitution in military brothels during Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia – a particularly sensitive point in both nations. He later apologised for those remarks, but he has also suggested that Japan’s landmark 1993 apology for World War II sex slavery needs revising. Along with his regrets that he never got around to paying his respects to the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister, Abe’s track record – and his presumed future goals – is sure to keep Chinese and Korean politicians – and just ordinary citizens – on the alert for any more evidence of militaristic thought.

According to observers, this time around, Japanese voters seemed supportive of the LDP’s vows to build a stronger, more assertive country in response to increasing pressure on Japan from China and the threat of North Korea’s rocket launches – is sure to keep Chinese and Korean politicians – and just ordinary citizens – on the alert for any more evidence of militaristic thought.

Bruce Klingner at the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative Washington-based think tank explains that Abe’s win reflects “an embrace of conservative views” in light of Japan’s strained relations with its neighbours in recent years. Klingner says, “Chinese assertiveness and North Korean provocations nudged the public from its usual post-war complacency toward a new desire to stand up for Japanese sovereignty,” even if it is not necessarily a full-bore return to militarism.

But the Chinese state media have already issued warnings that the countries’ relations might suffer if Abe pushed too hard. “When Abe takes power, the Chinese should take real action to immediately set him straight. If he takes excessively hard-line action against China, we should resolutely fight back” read a commentary in Global Times, a newspaper from the same publishing house that issues the Communist Party’s People’s Daily.

Meanwhile, next door, North Korea has just managed to carry out a successful missile test that overflew waters adjacent to South Korea as well as over several outlying Japanese islands (and not the disputed ones), just before the Japanese election and 19 December South Korean poll. Analysts argue this successful firing ostensibly to put a satellite into orbit is a sign the North Korean government under Kim Jong Un is continuing in his father’s hard-line policies despite the international condemnation. This rocket can easily be seen as a thinly disguised way of carrying out military tests already banned by the UN of North Korea’s long-range missile technology.

The UN has already said such a test programme threatens regional stability and is a major waste of resources when millions of North Korean citizens have so little to eat in a famine-beset country that desperately needs economic reforms. There is also concern that now that North Korea has successfully tested long distance missile technology that can cover all of South Korea, most of Japan and key parts of China, it will move on the development of nuclear warheads small enough to be fitted onto their missiles. It is one thing to test a large, primitive nuclear device on the ground; it is another thing entirely to make one that rides a missile to a target.

Shortly before the Japanese election, the Economist had explained the impact of the North Korean missile test by writing, “Sending a satellite into orbit requires much of the same technology as firing an intercontinental ballistic missile with an equivalent payload at, say, America once re-entry expertise and accuracy have been mastered. So the success represents big progress in North Korea’s missile programme. It also raises the stakes in dealings with the recalcitrant regime, at a time of new administrations in America and China and just before elections in Japan (16 December) and South Korea (19 December). In South Korea’s presidential election, both main candidates had been talking of engaging with the North after a prolonged and tense standoff under the outgoing president, Lee Myung-bak. Mr Kim’s provocative behaviour undermines the goodwill. In Japan, regional security is already a campaign issue.”

It is important to remember that the demilitarised zone that separates North and South Korea is not a formal boundary, merely a truce line that follows the armistice at the conclusion of the Korean War. North Korea continues to point to the continuing presence of American troops in South Korea as a key rationale for its atomic weapons programme.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the 19 December election pits Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri party against Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic United Party (DUP). The Economist notes of that election that it “will be a close contest, and at the heart of it is a personal fight as well. Miss Park is the daughter of former strongman Park Chung-hee, the architect of South Korea’s economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s. Mr Moon was a democracy activist once imprisoned by Mr Park’s regime. Of Miss Park, he once said, ‘when I was fighting against dictatorship, she was at the heart of it’. Now the fight really begins.” The results of the Japanese election, as well as the North Korean missile test, will almost certainly weigh heavily on the Korean electorate’s choice.

Put all of these issues together – territorial disputes that have seen Japanese fighter jets scramble over Chinese incursions near the disputed islands, those new North Korean missiles (and its earlier nuclear tests), a more assertive Japanese government and a resurgent China – and East Asia will be facing a period of increasing tension between all of the key players in the region. And all of this comes just as Chinese has successfully launched and tested its new aircraft carrier and domestically produced carrier-based aircraft. Just to keep things on the boil, the Chinese also made a big deal out of the 75th anniversary of the Japanese sacking of Nanking, the city that was then the capital of China. And as for Washington, well, its much-ballyhooed American pivot towards Asia is going to find plenty to keep it busy there. DM

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Photo: Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is also the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), leaves a news conference at his party’s election headquarters in Tokyo December 16, 2012. Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) surged back to power in an election on Sunday just three years after a devastating defeat, giving ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a chance to push his hawkish security agenda and radical economic recipe. Voters had expressed disappointment with Noda’s DPJ, which swept to power in 2009 promising to pay more heed to consumers than companies and reduce bureaucrats’ control of policymaking. REUTERS/Issei Kato


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