North Korea News: North Korea is Willing to Talk, So Why is Japan So Worried?

North Korea has offered to resume diplomacy with South Korea recently, with a centerpiece of those conversations being the restart of the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex, closed since the last round of tensions on the peninsula. While the tensions are at a relatively low ebb in contrast to the occasional missile or nuclear test by North Korea, the diplomacy this time around is not only more conditional, but also uncertain. Relations between the two Koreas are tenuous, but it's also important to understand how North Korea figures in the political calculus of other regional players, notably Japan, because Tokyo perceives North Korea and China as operating in a geopolitical tandem that confronts its security interests. Regional relations will have huge implications for peace and stability on the peninsula.

The best example of recent friction between the Koreas is the inability to reach an agreement on Kaesong, which is a symbol not only of economic cooperation, but one of political significance, in that it suggests the reunification of the peninsula will be possible one day. Pyongyang’s protests include demands for higher wages for North Korean workers, and also higher taxes for the South Korean companies operating there. These demands are not unexpected, as the industrial zone is an important source of revenue for Pyongyang, whose political whims, in turn, make the project a money sinkhole in the eyes of South Korean businesses. Particularly onerous will be the cost of amortization and damage from the months the facilities have not been maintained. Demands by Seoul for financial compensation could be yet another sticking point for bilateral negotiations.

The diplomacy becomes yet more tangled as we move to North Korea’s UN envoy, So Se Pyong, and his conference in Geneva on Wednesday concerning his country’s willingness to hold international talks for calming tensions on the peninsula. Much of Pyong’s rhetoric focused on the bilateral military exercises between South Korea and the United States, which are traditionally scheduled to take place in August, saying that they are the destabilizing factor that triggers the tensions on the Korean peninsula. There was a slight light at the end of the geopolitical tunnel, however: Pyong expressed a possibility that, while North Korea has withdrawn from the 1953 armistice, it could work toward the end of the UN command in South Korea and the establishment of a permanent peace agreement between the two Koreas. That might not happen until all parties take concrete steps to realize the idea, which would include discussing international control of the north's nuclear weapons, reinstatement of the six-party talks, and the exchange of security guarantees, at minimum, between the two Koreas, the United States, China, and Japan. These steps would also help reduce the strain on an already stretched American defense budget.

Japan’s behavior with respect to the Korean question is among the hardest to forecast, because it views North Korea and China as geopolitical competitors for reasons beyond missile tests, nuclear weapons, and wrangling over minor island chains. The alliance between Japan and the United States effectively checks any tactical nuclear or conventional military threat from North Korea, and, largely, China. And Japan’s own economic strength is, to a certain degree, a guarantee that if there is a need to invest in rapid militarization or the development of nuclear weapons, neither objective will be difficult to achieve.

Tokyo’s considerations are different: a united Korea would rival Germany in economic output and nuclear weapons, which, coupled with a space program, would make such a Korea a truly strategic regional player with far-reaching influence, despite the obvious socioeconomic disparities between the peninsula's two regions. China, meanwhile, might retain its impressive economy, but the demographics of an aging population will force Beijing to shift to a more internal focus by mid-century. All the while, China will remain a major Pacific power with capabilities that are going to rival those of the American ally system. In this context, Japan’s lack of raw materials makes its economy fundamentally dependent on supply along trade routes that are far from predictable (e.g. the Strait of Hormuz, and maritime territory over which China may assert sovereignty).

In sum, these considerations point to a wealthier and highly capable East Asia with a crowded strategic space and a multidimensional mix of cooperation and competition between the concerned actors. It is this potential reality that I think drives Japanese strategic thought.  

What becomes visible is that North Korea is at the center of a very complicated international relations puzzle. Its willingness to talk is a good sign, but the points of tension are still there. In turn, diplomacy must find new ways of framing interests and concerns if we are to see any tangible progress.