(Asahi: January 7, 2016 – p. 8)
Interview with Hitoshi Tanaka, chairman of Institute for International Strategy, Japan Research Institute and former deputy foreign minister, by Machi Jokyo
North Korea has always used nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches for its “brinkmanship diplomacy” to jolt the U.S. into engaging in dialogue. It had also made “calculated moves” in the form of secret advance notification to China on the tests, in order to continue receiving aid.
There is no doubt that the latest nuclear test is North Korea’s way of sending out the message “don’t belittle the DPRK” by showing off its possession of a hydrogen bomb.
However, there seems to be no reason for North Korea to rattle the U.S. at a time the Workers’ Party of Korea congress is approaching in May, when the DPRK will need foreign aid to show some economic results, and this action will obviously aggravate its relations with China. In that sense, North Korea took this action in full awareness that it will result in further international isolation.
From the above, the nuclear test was probably meant more for “internal consolidation” to ensure Kim Jong Un’s position as the absolute leader rather than for the international community. The Kim Jong Un regime is still unstable, and purges and personnel changes are still taking place frequently. This nuclear test might have emerged as a means for internal consolidation in the run-up to the party congress in May.
This action might not have been planned based on a rational decision. This is an indication of the vulnerability of the Kim Jong Un regime and the possibility that this very young leader may make more impulsive decisions in the future.
Therefore, what is to be done to prevent North Korea from going berserk and persuade it to voluntarily abandon nuclear weapons? I believe the concerned countries need to cooperate very closely in confronting North Korea with a common goal. For example, even after the previous nuclear test, China had continued its border trade with North Korea and persisted in providing de facto aid. Not all the concerned countries were on the same page.
No matter how tough the sanctions imposed by the international community are, they will be meaningless if China continues to provide aid. China must be coopted into the Japan-U.S.-ROK framework of cooperation to make it play a more constructive role.
The U.S., which is grappling with Middle East issues, the Ukraine crisis, and numerous other problems, must also be urged to play a more active role in cooperation with its allies Japan and the ROK.
Japan is currently a nonpermanent UN Security Council member and the host of the G7 Ise-Shima Summit this year. The Japan-China relationship is improving and the Japan-ROK relationship is heading toward improvement after the comfort women agreement was reached. It can be said that this is a really great opportunity for Japan to take the lead in the cooperative relationship and work for finding common ground to resolve this issue.
With regard to the abduction issue between Japan and North Korea, the key issue is whether the concerned countries can form a framework of cooperation and work collectively for a comprehensive solution to the North Korea issues, including the nuclear issue.