Japan’s notoriously stressed salarymen and women have a brand-new excuse for being late to work: Kim Jong-un.
On April 29, the Tokyo Metro company set a dramatic precedent by halting train services in response to a North Korean ballistic missile test. The move dramatized the new normal — and the rising stakes — in a nation of 127 million people directly in the line of fire should Kim decide to hit a staunch U.S. ally.
The existential stakes rose further a month later when Pyongyang fired a Scud-type missile inside Japan’s “exclusive economic zone.” It landed where cargo and fishing vessels are active, an area extending 200 nautical miles from the Japanese coast. In other words, too close to home.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed “concrete measures” to stop “repeated provocations” now even halting Tokyo trains. Abe, along with U.S. President Donald Trump, urged China to use its considerable leverage to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is clearly fed up with Kim’s military adventurism. A recent plunge in North Korean coal purchases by China, for example, got Pyongyang’s attention. So did hints Beijing might cut oil shipments that support Kim’s enfeebled economy. But while China is squeezing the regime, it’s doing so only tentatively. As this dawns in a Trump White House trying to shift the burden of restraining Kim to Xi, tensions are sure to fly.
Those strains will quickly land at Abe’s door. North Korea’s official KCNA news agency warned Japan may be “reduced into ashes” if it “behaves wickedly.” That prompted a wicked response from Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which favors a more muscular policy on North Korea’s nukes.
The government is working up contingency plans after 10 missile tests so far this year: building bomb shelters, massive evacuation drills of office buildings, schools, shopping centers and even entire cities; and an increased military presence in the Sea of Japan.
Ironically, Xi’s tolerance of Kim’s behavior could backfire in ways that irk the Community Party. Historically, Japan has relied on the U.S. security umbrella. Rising threats have Tokyo buzzing about even greater military spending. Since taking office in 2012, Abe steadily boosted defense expenditure to the 5 trillion yen ($45 billion) mark this year. Yet his ability to send Japan’s nearly 250,000 troops, dozens of warships and hundreds of fighter jets abroad are constrained by law — one Abe may now have a greater chance of overturning.
Rewriting the war-renouncing post-World War II constitution so that Tokyo can exert military might abroad is a key Abe ambition. The more Kim — with Xi’s tacit tolerance — tests Tokyo’s patience, the more lawmakers might authorize Abe to play the war games he craves and China dreads.
Missile defense system
Another Beijing nightmare: Abe could ask Trump to build a series of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems around Japan. The recent placement of such a deterrence really soured China-South Korea relations. Japan already has a two-stage missile shield, but Abe’s party is clamoring for long-range strike capabilities. Tomomi Inada, Abe’s defense minister, visited Guam to check out America’s Aegis Ashore weapons-interception system.
Next, Abe could impose “secondary sanctions” on China Inc. The problem isn’t just China-based front companies, but giant factories in northeastern Chinese cities like Dandong that help Pyongyang navigate around formal sanctions. By blacklisting those companies in sectors like mining, finance and transport, Abe, along with the Trump administration, could make a dent in Kim’s bottom line. China Inc.’s, too.
Far from being irrational, Kim may be playing chess in North Asia. On the one hand, his missiles score points with the most hawkish members of his inner circle, buttressing his legitimacy with 25 million North Koreans. On the other, Kim may be trolling China, the U.S. and Japan into a three-party proxy war, allowing him to play one nation off another. Kim could lose, of course. Trump’s erratic behavior toward Asia, for example, worries Abe’s inner circle, increasing the odds that Japan might address Pyongyang on its own terms.
In that context, Graham Allison’s new book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” is eminently sobering. From ancient Greek times to today, one rising power challenging another tends to come to blows. Allison’s conclusion? Washington and Beijing are “currently on a collision course for war.” Might Pyongyang be that flashpoint? Back in April, when Kim’s missiles began stopping Tokyo’s trains, Trump said that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
Tokyo marching into this tinderbox only raises the stakes, given hard feelings about Japan’s invasions 80 years ago. Xi has more leverage to discipline Kim than anyone. The price for not using it could be a return of Japanese militarism that would be as dangerous for markets as geopolitical relations between the three biggest economies.
Mr. Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”
Follow William on Twitter: @williampesek The views expressed here are the author’s own.