Japan's dilemma over Iran

Posted in Japan | 28-Jun-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

TOKYO - Though Japan is being accused of employing double standards over North Korea and Iran, its cozy relationship with the US dictates Tokyo likely will fall in line should the time come to impose sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.

Resource-poor Japan so far has been reluctant over imposing sanctions against Iran, a major oil supplier. Yet Tokyo is threatening economic sanctions against North Korea if the Stalinist state goes ahead with its threatened test-firing of a Taepodong 2 missile.

Along with its ally the United States, Japan has stepped up diplomatic efforts to rally international pressure on Pyongyang to halt preparations for a test and the two appear ready to impose sanctions on North Korea whether or not there is a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Regardless of how the latest North Korean missile crisis plays out, it will certainly prompt Japan to accelerate work on implementing recently beefed-up security arrangements with the US and also improve cooperation on a joint missile defense system.

Last Friday, Japan and the US signed an agreement formally to begin the joint development of an advanced SM3 (Standard Missile 3), which is an interceptor weapon. Also, the Bush administration has reportedly notified Tokyo recently that it will deploy PAC3 missiles (surface-to-air Patriot Advanced Capability 3) at a US base in Okinawa prefecture by year's end. The deployment will be the first time the surface-to-air missiles have been installed to defend US forces in Japan from possible North Korean missile attacks.

On Thursday, a US Navy ship intercepted a medium-range missile warhead above the Earth's atmosphere off Hawaii in the latest test of the US missile defense (MD) program. The US said the test had been scheduled for months and was not prompted by indications that North Korea was planning to test launch a long-range missile. The Kirishima practiced tracking the target, marking the first time that a Japanese Aegis destroyer had participated in a US interception test.

In December, the Koizumi government formally committed to the joint development of a new sea-based interceptor missile as a main pillar of the MD system. The joint development cost of the advanced SM3 is estimated at a maximum of US$2.7 billion, with Japan shouldering up to $1.2 billion and the US paying the rest. The next-generation interceptor missile will be deployed on Aegis-equipped destroyers.

Separately from the joint development of the new SM3, Japan decided in late 2003 to introduce a MD system using existing interceptor missiles in 2007. Well over 100 PAC3 surface-to-air missiles will be procured by the end of fiscal 2010.

Meanwhile, US critics of Japan's Iran policy have argued that Iran's nuclear program could destabilize the entire Middle East region - from which Japan imports about 90% of its oil - and, as a result, severely damage Japan's energy security. They also have accused Tokyo of inconsistency on the issue of nuclear proliferation by getting tough with Pyongyang while doing business with Tehran as usual.

US Treasury Secretary John Snow asked his Japanese counterpart Sadakazu Tanigaki this month to consider joining Washington's plan to impose financial sanctions on Iran, such as by requesting that private financial institutions refrain from conducting transactions with the country. Tanigaki replied that though Japan was aware of US concerns about Iran's nuclear development program, he believed Japan and the US needed to consider the plan further while talking with European countries.

Japan imports nearly 15% of its oil from Iran. Despite US pressure, Japan has refused to give up its massive Azadegan oil project in Iran. Still, Japan will likely lean toward agreeing to a US request for sanctions against Iran unless the Persian Gulf nation abandons its nuclear program.

But it is the North Korean situation that has Japan's immediate attention. Japan has been on high alert amid signs North Korea is preparing to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile believed capable of reaching the US and which could accidentally fall on Japanese territory.

This isn't the first time Japan has been twitchy over a North Korean missile launch. Pyongyang stunned Tokyo in August 1998 by test-firing a Taepodong 1 ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers. It flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean. The Taepodong 2 ballistic missile has a range of up to 6,000km, meaning it could reach Alaska.

North Korea has also deployed an estimated 200 shorter-range Rodong missiles capable of striking almost all Japan's territory. It is anybody's guess outside of North Korea whether its warheads are advanced enough to deliver weapons of mass destruction.

Since the current North Korean missile crisis erupted after US satellites started noticing preparations at the North's missile launch site at Musudan-ri, Japanese leaders have issued strongly worded warnings to Pyongyang. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has made two visits to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il since taking office in 2001 despite the absence of diplomatic ties, has said Tokyo will take "stern measures" against any missile launch.

News reports suggest the Taepodong 2 has already been fueled. The North Korean missile threat comes amid a protracted impasse in the six-way talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which also involve the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. It is widely seen as yet another case of Pyongyang's typical brinkmanship diplomacy aimed at extracting concessions from its arch enemy, the US.

Pyongyang is widely believed to be using the missile threat to break the deadlock in the talks, which have been stalled since November.

Japan and the US have said a Taepodong 2 launch would violate Pyongyang's self-imposed 1999 moratorium on ballistic missile tests, its 2002 agreement with Japan and also its implicit agreement in the six-party nuclear talks last autumn. Pyongyang has claimed its moratorium on ballistic missile tests no longer applies as it is no longer in direct talks with Washington.

Japanese officials have said if North Korea test-fires the Taepodong 2 missile in defiance of growing international pressure, Tokyo will immediately call for a meeting of the Security Council. Japan and the US reportedly have already begun discussions on a resolution harshly condemning the missile launch. Foreign Minister Taro Aso said recently it would be "inevitable" for the Security Council to consider imposing sanctions on Pyongyang if it goes ahead with the missile launch.

But it remains to be seen how much support Japan and the US would be able to garner for their stance on North Korea. When Pyongyang test-launched a Taepodong 1 missile in 1998, the Security Council was only able to issue a statement to the media - not a binding resolution or even a chair's statement - expressing concerns over the incident, because China objected to discussing the matter at the council. China is one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the council. The other four are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France.

However, this time China may agree to take up the North Korean missile issue at the Security Council because it must be well aware of the seriousness of the situation, especially as the chair of the six-party nuclear talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

But Beijing's support for sanctions appears very unlikely. Among the participant countries in the six-way nuclear talks, China, Russia and South Korea have advocated a softer approach to Pyongyang, while the US and Japan have taken a harder line. On the missile issue also China and Russia appear unlikely to agree to economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Because of this prospect, Japan and the US are poised to cooperate in slapping economic sanctions on their own, even without a UN sanctions resolution.

Japan has passed necessary bills to impose sanctions on its own. In 2004, Japan revised the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law to allow the government to halt trade and block cash remittances to North Korea - or any other country - based on its own judgment, even without a UN resolution calling for such sanctions.

Japan also enacted a new law that year that authorizes the government to ban docking at Japanese ports of North Korean ships or ships that have visited North Korea. Among the likely targets is the Mangyongbyon-92 ferry, the main direct link between the two countries.

Pyongyang has often warned that economic sanctions would be tantamount to a "declaration of war". North Korea would suffer if Japan actually imposed sanctions. But the impact of the Japanese punishment would be limited unless other nations, especially China and South Korea, join the sanctions.

Until 2002 Japan was North Korea's second-largest trading partner after China, facilitated in part by the large ethnic-Korean community in Japan. However, the two-way trade has shrunk considerably in recent years, reflecting increasingly tense ties. Japan has fallen behind China, South Korea and Thailand.

Meanwhile, Koizumi will visit the US this week. The North Korean missile issue, along with Iran and Iraq, will top the agenda in talks this Friday with President George W Bush. These issues are also expected to be among top agenda items at the Group of Eight major countries in St Petersburg in mid-July.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected].

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