The past few weeks has seen an important turn of events in the Korean peninsula for the better.
North Korean decision to dismantle its nuclear weapons program is a welcome relief and the North Koreans were rewarded with food aid and oil shipments from South Korea, visits by Christopher Hill and the new Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi. The most significant gesture by North Korea has been the invitation to the IAEA to visit the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
The visit to Yongbyon by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials since December 2002 is a breakthrough and seen as the first step towards disarmament. However, it should be cautioned that this trip is not an inspection. "This is not an inspection. We are here to negotiate and we will see where we are on Friday evening -- what we have on the table at that time," said IAEA nuclear safeguards director Olli Heinonen.
If all goes well, the actually inspection will take place probably on July 9 and the deal will be completed. When that happens, Pyongyang would receive energy aid, security guarantees and better diplomatic standing. Already, the rewards are in. South Korea responded quickly, resuming rice aid to its impoverished neighbor and has initiated steps for the negotiations of the supply of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, the first installment promised under the February 13 deal.
While North Korea is conciliatory overall to the international community, it reserved its barbs for Japan. North Korea questioned Japan's participation at six-party nuclear disarmament talks on the communist state and expressed its unhappiness with Tokyo's "suppression" of a pro-Pyongyang group in Japan.
A foreign ministry spokesman said Japan's crackdowns on the General Association of Korean Residents of Japan, called Chongryon (the de facto North Korean embassy in Japan) were "a blatant violation of the sovereignty" of North Korea. It now faces closure after pro-Pyongyang financiers went bankrupt.
The Tokyo District Court ruled that Chongryon had to pay debts totaling 62.7 billion yen (US$508 million) and authorized law enforcement to impound its head office as collateral. In addition, the Resolution and Collection Corp., a state debt agency, is seeking the return of taxpayers' money lent to 16 bankrupt credit associations affiliated to Chongryon.
"This is a blatant violation of the sovereignty of (North Korea) little short of financial sanctions," the spokesman said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. "As Japan is behaving so dastardly with a black-hearted intention, (north Korea) cannot but raise a serious question as to whether there is any need for its continued participation in the six-party talks."
North Korean “open disdain” of Japan came at a time when Shinzo Abe was under siege for the scandal over lost pension records and for gaffes made by his ministers. The latest gaffe came from the Defence Minister, Fumio Kyuma.
Public anger over Kyuma is interesting if not ironical. Widely seen to be justifying the 1945 nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Defence Minister resigned under public and party pressure. This is an emotional subject in Japan, the only country in the world to have suffered an atomic attack which killed more than 200,000 people. He suggested that the United States was justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the attacks saved Japan from a Soviet invasion. "I understand that the bombings ended the war, and I think that it couldn't be helped," Kyuma said.
Such views contradicted the mainstream Japanese opinions, fiercely guided by survivors and their supporters, that the use of nuclear weapons is never acceptable and that there should be a ban on possession of such weapons. "That comment tramples on the feelings of the A-bomb victims, and as a target of the bomb, Nagasaki certainly cannot let this go by," Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue wrote in a protest letter handed to Kyuma.
"I would feel sorry if I became a burden in the upcoming elections ... so I decided to resign," Kyuma told reporters a few hours after his resignation. In resigning, Kyuma also told the media: "I told Prime Minister Abe, 'I'm sorry but I must take responsibility and resign ' and the prime minister said, 'That's very unfortunate ... but I accept your decision". Intense public anger has also prompted the opposition Democratic Party to demand an apology from the United States for the atomic bombings. This is out of the question since Japan’s defence is very much tied to US protection and the government’s plan to play a more active military role in the world very much depends on the US’s consent.
Ironically, the somewhat moderate Kyuma is now replaced by a well-known hardline rightwing conservative Yuriko Koike who has made her career making hawkish remarks in the media, especially on North Korea. After taking over the role, the tough-talking former newscaster told the media, "I want to play a role to boost confidence in the entire Abe administration". Without wasting time, she started almost immediately on the notion of the North Korean threat. "The security environment surrounding our nation remains serious, especially after North Korea's ballistic missile launches and its nuclear experiment," Koike said in her inauguration speech to her ministry.
Kyuma is just the latest in a series of “ministerial mayhem” that have hit Abe’s administration, from US disapproval of Kyuma’s and Aso’s (foreign minister) remarks on the Iraq war to the suicide of his farm minister over corruption scandal. Kyuma’s replacement seems to suggest that Abe is increasingly unable to control the party’s old guard whose factions still accumulate vast powers despite being tamed by former PM Koizumi.
Kyuma’s resignation is also seen as a form of public anger against Abe’s focus on remilitarization issues instead of pensions and economic issues. Abe’s approval ratings have dropped to all-time low of below 30 per cent. The Japanese media seems to suggest that it is too little, too late. "The mishandling of the entire hurtful affair has added to the growing list of the Abe government's political fiascos and is bound to haunt the ruling coalition throughout the election campaign," the Nikkei business daily said.
However, despite all the hoo-ha about the Defence minister’s remarks and also simmering public anger over bread and butter issues, these are unlikely to unseat the hawkish Prime Minister who is determined to overhaul Japan to create a more confident and assertive regional power with a strong international agenda.
It is likely that Abe will take the advice of his mentor, former PM Koizumi, who has advised him on several occasions to ignore public opinions and focus on rebuilding Japan for the international profile it deserves. In many ways, this mirrors US President Bush’s presidency. The upcoming July 29 parliamentary election is likely to bear testimony to this strategy. (5 July 2007)
Ministerial mayhem (Straits Times, 5 July 2007)
Japan's new defence chief takes over as Abe fights for survival (Channelnewsasia, 4 July 2007)
Japan defense chief quits over gaffe (AP, 3 July 2007)
Japan's Minister for Financial Services calls on SM Goh (Channelnewsasia, 2 July 2007)
North Korea questions Japan's participation at six-party talks (Channelnewsasia, 2 July 2007)
Japan PM reprimands defence minister for A-bomb remarks (Channelnewsasia, 2 July 2007)
Japan defence chief apologises for atom bomb remarks (Channelnewasia, 2 July 2007)
IAEA team heads for North Korea nuclear complex (Reuters, 28 June 2007)