North Korea and Japan’s difficult history

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Long-term tensions between North Korea and Japan have risen dramatically after residents of Hokkaido were evacuated from their home when the hermit kingdom test-fired what could be a new type of ballistic missile. 

At 8am on 13 April, the Japanese emergency-alert system warned millions of people living on the island to take cover from a long-range weapon. The alert was soon lifted, and the authorities said the missile did not land near the island. 

South Korea’s military believes it was a new type of ballistic missile, an anonymous defence official told The Guardian. If the launch turns out to have been a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), it would be the first time North Korea has used such a weapon. 

South Korea’s military called the launch a “grave provocation”, while Japan’s foreign minister said it posed an “imminent threat” to Japan’s security. The White House “strongly condemned” the launch, said the US National Security Council. Meanwhile, North Korea has criticised joint military exercises between South Korea and the US. 

The alert echoes a similar situation last October, when North Korea fired a series of ballistic missiles over Japan into the Pacific Ocean, the first such tests since 2017. The launch appeared to be “a deliberate escalation to get the attention of Tokyo and Washington”, said the BBC

How are Japanese-North Korean relations?

Pyongyang’s relations with Japan appear “frozen in time”, said The Diplomat, with little contact between the two countries. North Korea seems to have “lost interest” in Japan and is more concerned with the US.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme “is the paramount concern of policy-makers and security experts” in Tokyo, said the non-profit think-tank the International Crisis Group, and the country “routinely threatens to destroy Japan with nuclear weapons”, said Vox

A further “primary focus of the Japanese public” is Pyongyang’s “unwillingness” to “come clean” about the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents between 1977 and 1983, said the International Crisis Group. 

North Korea admitted to 13 abductions in 2002, at the first Japan-North Korea summit, and apologised. Five of the abductees were returned to Japan, but the remaining abductees are still detained in North Korea.

Meanwhile, other families “are still waiting for answers”, said The Diplomat. As of July last year, the Japanese National Police Agency put the number of abducted Japanese citizens at 871.

Why have things escalated this year?

“North Korea has long cited what it calls hostility by the United States and its allies as a reason to pursue a nuclear program,” said Politico.

Japan, the US and South Korea began discussions to “strengthen security ties” over North Korea’s nuclear threat last September, Reuters said. 

Joint military drills between the three countries have “antagonised” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “who sees them as proof his enemies are preparing for war”, said the BBC

Meanwhile, North Korea has drawn closer to “the two countries that were already its best friends”, said Foreign Policy: Russia and China, which continue to block any UN action against the hermit kingdom. 

Japan and South Korea last month achieved a milestone in what the BBC called their “fraught relationship” with the first major summit since 2011, resolving a long-running trade dispute and agreeing to resume regular visits, in the face of an increasingly threatening North Korea. Pyongyang “won’t take reconciliation between its neighbours well”, said Foreign Policy

Satellite images this month have shown a high level of activity at North Korea’s main nuclear site, according to the Washington-based think-tank 38 North Korea.

This week, Kim Jong Un ordered his military to strike a “more practical and offensive” pose to counter US “aggression”, according to its state media agency. He also unveiled new, smaller nuclear warheads.

North Korea also stopped answering the twice-daily phone calls from South Korea, which are meant to prevent clashes on the border. 

How are rising tensions impacting Japan? 

As China’s “regional assertiveness” grows and Russia continues to “challenge” the global order by waging war with Ukraine, Japan finds itself in a “precarious position”, said The Japan Times. 

North Korea’s “unprecedented string of missile tests” have increased support for “a large hike in defense spending” in Japan, prompting “deeper discussions on the feasibility of acquiring a counterstrike capability”. 

In September, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida “renewed his offer” to meet North Korea’s reclusive leader, said France 24, saying he wanted to “engage in dialogue on matters of mutual concern”.

North Korea, which has fire 27 missiles so far this year, remains “an even more grave and imminent threat” for Japan’s security, according to foreign affairs think-tank the Stimson Center