June 27, 2008; Volume 04, Number 21

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Implications of Washington’s Decision to De-List North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism
What’s Happened? What’s Changed?
Japan’s Immediate Response to the U.S. Announcement
Significance of the De-Listing Announcement for Japan’s Domestic Politics and International Relations
How About the Effect on the Conduct of International Relations?
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from beautiful Devil’s Fork State Park. On the shore of Lake Jocassee. In the Upstate Region of South Carolina. Today is Friday, June 27th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 21, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


In the Mobile Studio again this week. At another of South Carolina’s remarkable state parks. First time here. Since it’s a three-hour drive from home. The last hour of that drive doesn’t count for travel, though. It’s through some incredible mountain scenery. Both natural and social. This Park is snuggled right up against the Blue Ridge Mountains. With breathtaking views from almost any angle. AND, they have a WiFi cloud at the office!

What more could a person ask? Well, maybe a lake. And it’s here! Lake Jocassee is ideal for kayaking. It has to be seen to be believed. Quite different from Lake Wateree where I often park the Mobile Studio. Closer to home. This lake is very deep and cold. Even now in the midst of summer. The shoreline’s remarkably undeveloped. I’ve been out early every morning paddling its crystal-clear water. And will try to put a few photos in the podcast transcript.

This week it was a bit quieter in political and international Japan. Though important things are happening. We’ll begin with assessment from the Japanese perspective of Washington’s decision to delist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Trying to cover both the domestic political and foreign relations consequences.

Then, we’ll briefly consider an interesting recent proposal from younger LDP members of the Diet. This one a revision of the rules under which an LDP president is elected. I’ve seen nothing about this in the English language press. Though I could just have missed it. LDP Upper House Member and Irrepressible Reformer, Ichita Yamamoto, spearheaded this one. Who knows? It may have some impact. Or encourage similar efforts. Japan’s political journalists know about it, anyway.

Implications of Washington’s Decision to De-List North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

After weeks of anticipation, the United States yesterday announced plans to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The announcement itself came as no surprise. Both Washington and Tokyo have been building up to it for some time. But I was surprised to see the announcement made directly from the White House. By President Bush himself. The Department of State manages the list. And, this is bound to be a politically controversial decision. Both in the United States, and, of course, in Japan. President Bush certainly isn’t shining up to his conservative political base with this one! Why not delegate it to Foggy Bottom, and let them take the initial incoming fire? Hmmm.

We don’t have time here to go into the political specifics of this decision on the Washington side. Though they’re considerable. I’ve talked with a number of in-the-know folks in Washington about the announcement. Before and after it was made. None were willing to come on the program. Or to provide information for attribution that’s not already in the public record.

I don’t blame any of them. It’s a darn touchy issue in D.C. Especially since President Bush is near the end of his term. And comparisons with the preceding Clinton Administration’s disappointing efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang at the very end of their term are inevitable.

In fact, the second question President Bush received from the White House Press Corps was exactly about that. How he responds to critics accusing him of accepting a “watered-down declaration” from North Korea at the end of his term as president. Bush’s response to the question made it obvious he was sensitive to the Clinton Administration comparison. Sooo, nobody with government responsibility, direct or indirect, wants to raise their head at the moment. Understandable.

Our focus on this program, anyway, is on the effect the U.S. decision will have on Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. Not on Washington. Domestic politics and international relations are related, of course. But we should try to consider them separately to make sense out of the whole thing.

What’s Happened? What’s Changed?

Well, first, what happened? According to English language news reports from Beijing yesterday, China’s vice foreign minister, Wu Dawei, told a news conference at the Foreign Ministry that Pyongyang has submitted a “declaration of its nuclear programs” to China.

I’ve yet to read a reliable version of that “declaration.” In English or in Japanese. Or even a reliable summary. Though North Korea promised some time back to provide detailed information about its nuclear programs by the end of last year. That submission has been delayed until yesterday by disputes over just what should be included in the “declaration.” According to a news report from Seoul, yesterday’s submission runs about 60 pages. And lists nuclear facilities, plutonium extracted, and North Korea’s uranium stocks. According to this Seoul report, Pyongyang’s Thursday submission includes no information about nuclear weapons. Or about the facilities related to nuclear weapons production. 

The only thing certain at this point is that the scope of the information provided represents compromises between North Korea and the Six-Party Talk member representatives. U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, was reported earlier this week to have predicted the statement would not include details of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. As hoped. But that it will list North Korea’s nuclear facilities and nuclear materials stockpiles. For Japan, of course, those nuclear weapons are a real and immediate concern….

Anyway, it was that submission of materials by Pyongyang that prompted President Bush’s decision and yesterday’s announcement. Most critical for Japan, Bush announced that Washington has begun the process of removing North Korea from the Department of State’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism. He also announced plans to end “… provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act.” Another of North Korea’s most important diplomatic objectives. This, Bush said, in the Six-Party Talk spirit of “action-for-action.”

President Bush mentioned Japan specifically. In both his opening statement, and in response to reporters’ questions. Said he’s aware of Japan’s concerns over the Japanese citizens North Korean government agents have kidnapped from Japanese territory since the 1970s. “The United States will never forget the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans. We will continue to closely cooperate and coordinate with Japan and press North Korea to swiftly resolve the abduction issue,” he said. Hmm.

Japan’s Immediate Response to the U.S. Announcement

Japan’s immediate official response to the U.S. decision was positive. Yesterday, even before President Bush made his statement, Prime Minister Fukuda told the Kantei press corps that the U.S. decision to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terror would have positive consequences. That it was a step in the direction of resolving North Korea’s nuclear problems. And that it would lead toward resolution of the abduction issue. Japan, Fukuda said, would continue to cooperate closely with Washington even after the announcement.

So, that’s Japan’s official reaction. An official reaction maintained throughout yesterday and today. After North Korea’s belated submission of information. And after President Bush’s White House announcement. It’s even possible that Prime Minister Fukuda actually believes it. Whether he does or not, he has few realistic options. What’s he going to say? Publicly condemn the U.S. move? Boycott the Six-Party Talks? Neither response is realistic. Or likely. Tokyo has little choice now but to support the U.S. action. At least officially.

But Prime Minister Fukuda’s official reaction to these developments was one thing. Statements late yesterday and today from other senior political figures in Japan were quite another. Japan’s media today reported without attribution of source that Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura told the NSC’s Stephen Hadley that Japan’s public was “shocked” by the White House announcement. No source given for that information. But we can imagine.

And today, Machimura made clear during his on-the-record press briefings that further economic assistance from Japan to North Korea would depend upon progress on the abduction issue. Japan, in other words, is not giving up. Even if it does have to go along with the latest United States decision.

Other Japanese political leaders were even more blunt. DPJ leader, Ichiro Ozawa, commented that President Bush’s action once again demonstrates that Japan’s interests count for little in U.S. decisionmaking. Takeo Hiranuma, the Traditionalist we discussed last week, said the U.S. action threatens the solidarity of the Japan-United States alliance. Anonymous responses from senior political figures were even more critical of the U.S. decision. And its disastrous consequences for Japanese interests. Some anonymous critics compared President Bush’s end of term behavior with that of former President Clinton. And not favorably! Concluding that Washington becomes especially vulnerable to manipulation by countries like North Korea toward the end of presidential terms. Ouch!

Only senior LDP members Taku Yamasaki and Koichi Kato, joined by a few of their junior associates, provided positive reactions. Yamasaki especially, for some time now, has encouraged Japan’s government to take a more conciliatory posture toward North Korea. Even visiting Pyongyang himself for informal talks with the leadership there. So his response was no surprise. It did provide Japanese political journalists with the opportunity to describe opinion within the LDP on the issue as “divided.” But every one of those articles I read made it clear in the text that the Yamasaki-Kato view is held by only a very small minority of the Party.

In fact, media reaction in Tokyo was uniformly negative. Just a question of the degree of negativity. Even the Left-Leaning Asahi Shimbun refused to fully endorse the latest development concerning North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Arguing in their articles and editorials that Pyongyang’s submission of information about its nuclear program was a positive step. But quickly warning that it wasn’t a very big step at all. And that much remained to be accomplished. The more right-leaning Sankei and Yomiuri were far more negative in their assessments. Predicting real problems for Japan in the near-term.

It’s a bit early to assess the effect of all this on Japan’s attentive public opinion. Though Fuji TV today published the results of one of their quick Tokyo metro area telephone polls. They asked respondents what they thought of the Fukuda Administration’s approval of Washington’s decision to de-list North Korea. 69.2 percent disapproved, and only 21.8 percent approved! Granted, that’s an early, and highly selective, poll. Tokyo Metro isn’t all of Japan. Or even representative. But it certainly suggests Prime Minister Fukuda is unlikely to benefit from the position Washington’s announcement has put him in. He could be forgiven for recalling the effect of President Richard Nixon’s unexpected decision to visit China on the premiership of Eisaku Sato some years back!

Significance of the De-Listing Announcement for Japan’s Domestic Politics and International Relations

Sooo, how will all of this affect Japan in the short- and medium-term? Clearly, the announcement will have domestic political consequences for the already-shaky Fukuda Administration. And, consequences for Japan’s conduct of international relations. The two, of course, are related. But distinguishing between the two may help us avoid some rhetorical confusion.

First, the domestic political effect. Japan, from the Kantei to the general public, is genuinely worried about North Korea. Its next door neighbor! Kim Jong Il’s secretive, even mysterious, regime behaves unpredictably. To say the very least. Perhaps best illustrated by its bizarre decision to abduct Japanese citizens from coastal beaches. First denied, and then admitted! By Kim himself!

Even more alarming for Japan are North Korea’s nuclear weapons. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons. And missiles capable of dropping those weapons onto Japan’s cities. Japan’s general public can’t help but be alarmed. Alarm that translates directly into pressure on Japan’s national government to address and cope with the threat.

Successive Japanese cabinets have made every effort to assure Japan’s public that they’re focused on the North Korean threat. Doing their best to protect Japan from harm. And for many years they’ve made the abduction/kidnapping issue the focus of those efforts.

In hindsight, successive Tokyo administrations may have over-emphasized the abduction issue in their public statements. At home and abroad. But who could blame ‘em! The issue is a politician’s dream. Even President Bush was touched during his meeting with the Mother of one abductee. Successive Japanese prime ministers, including incumbent Yasuo Fukuda, have entered office promising to do all they can to “make progress” on the abduction/kidnapping issue.

This helps to explain why the majority of Japan’s political media commentary following yesterday’s announcement focused on how it would affect Japan’s negotiations with North Korea over the abduction issue. The omission of information about nuclear weapons in the report North Korea just delivered to China has been mentioned. But the effect on the abduction negotiations has received far more attention.

Does this mean that Japan’s government and attentive public are unconcerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Or, as one American newspaper reported today, that Japan is “obsessed” with the abduction issue? And the abduction issue alone? I don’t think so. Rather, the shocking abduction issue has come to symbolize overall Japanese concern about the unpredictable North Korean regime.

Even the most severe of Prime Minister Fukuda’s critics in Japan recognize that he has little choice but to support the Bush Administration’s decision to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terror. This widespread recognition will reduce the effectiveness of political attacks by Fukuda’s critics. It won’t stop them. Just reduce their effectiveness. So, in contrast to some well-informed predictions from Japan yesterday and today, I doubt that it will do much to reduce the Fukuda Cabinet’s public approval rating.

Further, Fukuda’s media and punditocracy critics on the Left may well hesitate to exploit this particular vulnerability. If only out of fear their actions would benefit potential Fukuda successors, such as the more conservative Taro Aso. We’ll certainly hear sharp criticism from the association of kidnap victims’ relatives. And probably from those political figures who chair their organizations. Like Takeo Hiranuma. But it’s unlikely to further debilitate the Fukuda Administration. Especially now that the Diet is out of session.

How About the Effect on the Conduct of International Relations?

The effect on Japan’s conduct of international relations is more complex. The Bush Administration decision to de-list North Korea places Japan between a rock and a hard place. Especially in its capacity as a member of the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang is certain to demand that Japan relax its economic sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s “actions,” or “concessions.” “Action-for-Action,” doncha know. And other members of the Six-Party Talks may well agree. Hoping to get Japan to pay the majority of the North Korean economic bail-out bill that Pyongyang’s bound to present now.

Should the Fukuda Administration decline to go along with majority opinion at the Six-Party talks, critics are certain to raise the danger of Japan’s “international isolation.” International critics, of course. And more important, the Fukuda Administration’s critics at home. Especially within the media and the punditocracy. That “danger of international isolation” charge would likely have greater influence over Japanese attentive public opinion than Fukuda’s agreement yesterday to go along with Washington’s de-listing announcement.

On the other side, should the Fukuda Administration quickly agree to loosen its economic sanctions on North Korea, even provide economic aid of some kind, Japan’s attentive public would be seriously disappointed. An even greater problem for the Fukuda Cabinet. Japan’s attentive public has about had it with the North Korean regime’s shenanigans.

So, Pyongyang’s submission of a “report” this week, and Washington’s subsequent decision to begin the process of removing North Korea from the Department of State’s list of terror-sponsoring states, has complicated the lives of Japan’s government officials responsible for the conduct of international relations. It will take considerable skill for the Fukuda Kantei to navigate these turbulent seas. Including the ability to explain its actions to Japan’s attentive public. Just doing one’s best, and hoping folks eventually recognize it, won’t be enough!

One other aspect of this issue requires mention. That is the effect of Washington’s announcement on the overall United States-Japan alliance. Takeo Hiranuma, as I mentioned a moment ago, said the U.S. action threatens the solidarity of the bilateral relationship. And Ichiro Ozawa said President Bush’s action demonstrates again that Washington doesn’t consider Japan’s interests when making important decisions. Those are exaggerations, of course. Good media sound bites. But inaccurate or inadequate descriptions of reality. It’s inconceivable that President Bush’s action yesterday will rupture the long-standing U.S.-Japan alliance. On the other hand, though, it certainly won’t make it any healthier!

Washington officials may well be justified to feel frustrated over Japan’s “obsession” with the abduction issue. And the sense that Tokyo somehow feels entitled to control the State Department’s sponsors-of-terrorism list. Washington’s Japan specialists must recognize that Tokyo’s successive prime ministers have emphasized the abduction issue over all else when explaining relations with North Korea to their attentive public. For their own political convenience. As noted a moment ago. When there are other, more serious, issues involved. Like development, implementation, and dissemination of nuclear weapons technology!

But frustration’s a fact of life for government officials with responsibility for international affairs! They always have to balance short- and medium-term interests off against longer-term interests. And a healthy bilateral relationship with Japan is very, very important for the United States in the longer-term. No need to go on and on about it. It’s well recognized.

The global environment has changed. For both Japan and the United States. The Cold War is over. Japan has more international options today than it had during the latter half of the last century. Including the degree to which Tokyo relies on the alliance with the United States for its national security. It’s in Washington’s interest to keep that degree of reliance as high as possible. And to avoid, to the extent possible, providing Japan’s domestic critics of the close bilateral relationship with political ammunition!

I’m in no position to assess the wisdom of the Bush Administration’s decision to make significant concessions to Pyongyang in return for their nuclear report. Just don’t have the facts. Let alone understanding of the larger picture! But the announcement has been made. Washington’s challenge now is to cope with the fall-out. In both the United States, and in Japan.  

On the Japanese side, it would be helpful to keep a close watch on how the announcement has played there. Both within the political elite, and the general public. And to the extent possible, support the Fukuda Administration’s efforts to defend their acceptance of the decision. Especially with the attentive public. President Bush’s mention of Japan’s concerns in his press statement yesterday. And his telephone call to Prime Minister Fukuda. Both were positive steps. More might be done on the ground in Tokyo now. In the way of good old political public relations. Heavens knows, the Fukuda Kantei can use all the help it can get in that department!

Concluding Comments

Well, the Old Clock on the Screen is blinking red. We’re just a little over time today. Ichita Yamamoto’s efforts to reform the LDP presidential election rules will have to wait until the next program. We won’t have a program next Friday, July 4th. So, it’ll have to wait until the 11th. Thanks for listening and, 

Goodbye all. Until next time.