North Korea threatens Japan. Worrying rhetoric or “nothing new under this sun”?

North Korean rockets
North Korean rockets

North Korea’s weapons testing activity this year has reached the highest level in recent years. Since the end of March, various types of missiles have been tested, including renewed tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles. On 2 November alone, 25 missiles were fired. What has led to such activity?

If there were no operational missiles in the arsenal, there would be no missiles to launch

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Several significant international and regional events in 2022 can be linked to North Korea‘s increased demonstration of military power. First of all, the election of a new South Korean President. Yoon Suk-yeol is a conservative who has traditionally assumed that a hard-line policy, rather than a policy of appeasement, works with North Korea. Liberal presidents, such as Moon Jae-in before him, have favoured talks, negotiations and softer rhetoric, which should facilitate rapprochement.

Secondly, at the end of the summer, there were rumours that North Korea would support Russia in its war against Ukraine. In November, joint military exercises between North Korea and the US took place – the largest ever (and virtually unheard of during President Trump’s term). All of this can be seen as stimuli for the North Korean reaction. On the other hand, if there were no operational missiles in the arsenal, there would be no possibility of launching them, as there have been several unsuccessful tests in recent years. Therefore, this year’s successful launches seem to imply that a properly functioning missile configuration has already been discovered and that the missile production process has been fine-tuned. This should mean that North Korea’s threats are taking a more tangible form.

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However, the reasons given for the missile tests in recent days are the threat to North Korea from Japan. It is worth looking at what is happening in Japan without going into the reality or the factual basis of such statements.

Changes in Japan

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Japan is constitutionally a pacifist country. Article 9 of the constitution states that the country renounces war as a means of resolving international conflicts. Given Japan’s experience during the Second World War, this seems logical – rampant militarism led to the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This event will long be remembered as the greatest disaster in the country’s history. To prevent any possibility of such a disaster from occurring again, the official reason for the emergence of militarism – the absence of an army in Japan – has been removed. This has helped Japan in several ways: firstly, a positive international image has been created, and resources that would have been devoted to armaments have been allocated to economic development and the improvement of public welfare. Finally, effective national defence is guaranteed by bilateral agreements and close ties with the US military. However, a deeper perspective is needed.

Although Japan does not have a formal army, it does have self-defence forces divided into land, air and water. These forces are effectively an army, but since the constitution prohibits the existence of such a formation, an alternative name is used. The existence of the Self-Defence Forces in Japan distorts the norms of the pacifist constitution and has often been the focus of leftist activists. The most intense tensions in Japanese society arose in 2014 when a package of reinterpretations of Article 9 of the constitution was adopted. This change came about thanks to the efforts of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as one of the aims of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was to bring Japan into line with the rest of the world in the 21st century. This means that the absence of a military force is a legacy of the Cold War and, in the present context, is seen as a disadvantage rather than an advantage. In the face of growing military power in neighbouring countries, Japan must react and not show weakness. Hence, in 2014, a resolution was adopted that the Japan Self-Defence Forces may participate in collective military action to assist partner countries outside Japan. This was the first step in changing the status of the existing force from being an institution exclusively dedicated to national defence.

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Japan will raise its defence funding to 2% of GDP, which will make it the third largest in the world after the US and China

It is difficult to assess to what extent this move by the LDP reflected popular opinion. Any action related to the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution is a source of passion in Japan and neighbouring countries. China, South and North Korea are not allowing the narrative of Japan’s militaristic crimes to disappear from public discourse. For this reason, the three documents adopted on 16 December – the national security strategy, the guidelines for the national defence programme and the medium-term defence programme – have provoked waves of criticism and accusations, and, on the part of North Korea, another missile test.

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Under the new resolutions, Japan will raise its defence funding to 2% of GDP, making it the third largest country in the world after the US and China. Japan will develop new types of missiles, develop a network of surveillance satellites, build new weapons depots and buy more weapons from the US. Over the next 5 years, around €300 billion would be spent on this development. This expansion will take place over the next several years. An expensive plan that stretches pacifist norms has been passed in Parliament, and recent events in 2022 likely persuaded the country’s politicians to take this step.

So how is North Korea’s recent rhetoric different from the harassment-seeking of the past? Not much. Indeed, Japan’s attitude to the region and to national defence is changing, which is reflected in clear decisions. But does the renewal of the national security strategy pose a threat to North Korea? Nor does it. However, it reflects the entrenched images in the region, the historical relations between the countries and the cross-border communication based on that, both now and in the near future.

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Dr. Arvydas Kumpis, Senior Specialist, Centre for Asian Studies, Vytautas Magnus University (VMU), Lecturer, Department of Cultural Studies, VMU

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