Geopolitics on the rocks

Michael Cucek

How the last North Korean missile launch has bonded Trump and Abe even closer

East Asia

Pyongyang’s last ICBM test has turned attention away from Abe’s domestic troubles and drawn the U.S. into sharing the danger Japan faces every day from DPRK missile and nuclear capabilities. Why Abe will be one of the few leaders Trump will treat with respect at the forthcoming G20 summit.

The Fourth of July is normally just another day in Tokyo. The United States’ Embassy is closed; a very small number of American executives and employees sneak a day off work. Thirteen hours ahead of Washington, Japan’s capital is normally not reminded until the 5th of the patriotic hoopla, complete with fireworks, which accompanies the independence day of Japan’s treaty ally and protector.

This week’s Fourth of July in Tokyo, however, started out with a bang. A little after 9:40 am local time, news reports came through of a North Korean missile launch. Around an hour later, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced from his podium at the Prime Minister’s Residence that the DPRK had fired a ballistic missile and that the payload had crashed some 40 minutes later into the Sea of Japan inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The prime minister, Suga continued, was apprised of the situation and had given orders to the government to collect information, perform analysis and guarantee the safety of the citizens, including those in ships at sea.

For the most part Suga’s announcement was not terribly alarming. Large chunks of it echoed, almost verbatim, the announcement he had made on May 14 regarding another North Korean missile test. The one surprising feature of the July 4 announcement was the incredibly long flight time of the payload. It portended an ominous new phase in DPRK testing had begun.

We now know that the long flight time was due to the extreme angle of attack of the missile’s course, with the topmost stage of the rocket being sent high up into space on a distant and time-consuming journey before arcing its way back to Earth near midway between North Korea and Japan.  The DPRK had developed a ballistic missile with sufficient raw power to conceivably drop a nuclear warhead on Alaska, or possibly the concentration of U.S. military forces on the island of Guam. After many threats, failures, feints and round after round of UN sanction, the DPRK had an ICBM.

The Abe government was not caught flat-footed on July 4. The Tokyo chattering classes and the media had been offering guesses on when the next the DPRK provocation would take place, with the Abe government repeatedly mapping out its diplomat and military responses to any provocation. Most speculation centered on the DPRK conducting its sixth nuclear test, possibly during the Washington summit meeting in Washington between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and U.S. president Donald Trump.  After all, the DPRK had livened up Abe’s and Trump’s Mar-A-Lago summit with a missile test right in the middle of a gala dinner.

When the provocative act turned out to be a missile test well after the summit, it seemed almost a letdown. The Abe government certainly had had plenty of practice at crisis response: the test on July 4 was the 17th DPRK missile test event since January. Japanese civil air defense alerts were issued in a timely and limited fashion, engendering none of the frantic actions earlier alerts had triggered (the snap decision of earlier this years of metropolitan transit authorities to halt Tokyo’s subways lines had earned both the transit companies and the Japanese government criticism for over-reacting). Presumably the anti-missile forces of both the US Forces Japan and the Self Defense Forces (SDF) tracked the missile, considering, though probably not for long, the need or ability to shoot down the missile or its reentry vehicle. 

The attitude in Japan’s capital could be characterized as almost too composed and casual. At the 11 am press briefing by Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada, only half of the session’s questions were on the missile launch. The rest were on Minister Inada’s having crossed the line regarding political use of the SDF (she had asked voters in a Tokyo Assembly district to vote for the Liberal Democratic Party candidate “on behalf of the Ministry of Defense and the SDF “) or the drubbing the LDP had suffered at the hands of a new political party Tokyoites First, despite Ms. Inada’s appeals to patriotism.

Cynical as it may sound, the missile test and the subsequent fever of analysis of the implications of the DPRK’s possessing an ICBM was a blessing for the Abe administration. They drew attention away from a seriously wounded and wobbling Abe.  On July 2 the voters of Tokyo turned out en masse to wrest control of the legislature of Japan’s capital district from out of the hands of an old (sometimes very old) guard LDP. Winning control was the only weeks’ old Tokyoites First party of Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, who had defected from the LDP to jump start her stalled political career a year before.  The new party indeed nearly ran the table, with 49 of its 50 candidates winning seats in the assembly.

Though Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was not running for office, and Tokyoites First candidates did not emphasize differences between their party’s platform and that of the national LDP (largely because there are few) the news media and opposition parties portrayed the Tokyo vote as a referendum on Mr. Abe’s four and a half years in office. For much of that long -- long at least in Japanese national politics -- time in office the Prime Minister has been untouchable as shepherd of legislation and a personification of leadership.

Over the last six months, however, his ability to manage Diet affairs and maintain an image as a steady, flexible and smart politician have both taken a beating. He and his party resorted to hazy Diet machinery manipulations to pass an unpopular and ineffective bill criminalizing conspiracy. Idiotic statements and government acts, perpetrated often by personal Abe protégés like Inada Tomomi, were no longer laughed at or shrugged off. Most surprisingly scandals, which the Abe Cabinet had previously avoided, began to popping up and sticking to the PM and his close associates. Abe’s reputation as an economic policy innovator and reformer has been severely damages by a series of giveaways of national property, ostensibly in support of growth initiatives and desirable social causes but actually as a quid-pro-quo to contributors and personal friends of the PM. The most dangerous and embarrassing of the scandals, the bending of the Ministry of Education bureaucrats into approving the construction of an unneeded veterinary college in a special economic zone, benefiting an Abe crony, threatens to explode when the Diet is reopened on July 10 for a special investigative session.

Diverting attention from a 24 hour news cycle on electoral failure, scandal and the rise of rivals within the LDP for Mr. Abe’s job was not the only positive outcome arising from the missile launch for the prime minister.  It also shifted political talk in favor a greater security cooperation between Japan and South Korea and deepening of U.S. commitment to fight for its allies long sought by Japanese conservatives like Abe.

The inauguration of Moon Jae-in as president of Republic of Korea on May 9 was a far-from-promising development in ROK-Japan relations. Though both Abe and Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye were staunch, nationalist conservatives with reasons to make common cause against the DPRK (Park’s mother had indeed been assassinated by a North Korean living in Japan) Abe was never even on speaking terms with Madame Park. It was only after years of painstaking negotiation and, for Abe, painful apologies for Japan’s behavior on war anniversaries -- and avoidance of the infamous Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead-- that Abe was able to secure a supposedly eternal and final “gentleperson’s agreement” on the resolution of the so-called “comfort women” sexual slave trade issue, an agreement that the liberal Moon has sworn to revisit and possibly repudiate.

The intervention of the DPRK’s firing of an ICBM, together with the possible testing of nuclear device during the G20 Hamburg summit (coordinating tests with international gatherings is a North Korea attention-magnifying technique) will almost certainly smooth the otherwise rough edges of Abe and Moon’s projected side first private meeting since Moon became president, a sideline trilateral in Hamburg with president Trump. They trio will have much of substance to talk about and comparatively less time to waste on posturing and bombast.

The DPRK’s test of an ICBM creating, along with the DPRK’s nuclear devices, a deterrent the Korean Central News Agency describes capable of “reaching anywhere” strengthened Abe’s already strong hand in dealings with Donald Trump. Abe is one of the president’s favorite leaders, having grasped even before Inauguration Day the necessity of ingratiating oneself to Trump the man, thus winning for Japan at least a hearing of its ideas and interests. Sharing in the DPRK the same personal enemy as Trump, and sharing also an unwillingness to meet the DPRK halfway on any issue (due to Trump’s disappointment in a lack of results from Chinese diplomacy and the DPRK’s cheeky ignoring of Trump’s warning against developing an ICBM) Abe will be one of the few leaders the President will treat with respect in Germany.

While Japan has been portrayed as a peace power at odds with Trump America on multilateral trade pacts and multilateral coordination on climate change, deluding some into thinking Japan the natural ally of the liberal internationalists of continental Europe, there is no space between Abe and Trump on tolerance of North Korean misbehavior.  Despite being largely symbolic, extremely provocative and possibly what prodded the DPRK to accelerate with its missile testing, the dramatic deployment of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and U.S.S. Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups to sail by the Korean Peninsula had Abe’s full support. Indeed, Abe had his defense minister dispatch Japan’s largest naval vessel, the helicopter carrier Izumo, to sail in between the Carl Vinson and Ronald Reagan in the Sea of Japan last month, with Japanese destroyers tagging along as escorts. For a lifelong enemy of the DPRK like Abe, whose early career was propelled by his championing the cause of families claiming loved ones had been kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s, Trump’s love military display and threats toward the DPRK is music, not noise, to his ears.  When the DPRK followed up with the testing of a missile that physically draws the U.S. into sharing the danger Japan faces every day from DPRK missile and nuclear capabilities, it became a Fourth of July worth celebrating.