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H. Yamada: Building a Roadmap for Peace in Northeast Asia

 Address to an International Leadership Conference
February 9-13 – Seoul, Korea

Let me present a short comment from a Japanese perspective. There is no single perspective because Japanese opinions have been very divided for more than two decades. In particular, on national security issues, several big newspapers are clearly in opposition to the Abe government. But, the majority of the public – even though it is not a big majority – supports Abe, according to opinion polls.

So, my comments this morning reflect the majority of Japanese thinking.

I agree with former US Amb. Christopher Hill when he wrote recently, “One element of the Kim dynasty’s end is certain. That is China will have abandoned it,” and that China will do this partly “to reduce the strategic distrust between the U.S. and China, which is a significant factor underlying China’s reluctance to do more on North Korea.”

After the executions of Jang Song-thaek and his followers, the China-North Korea rift may have become irreversible, and some observers says the policies of the U.S. and others toward North Korea must include reassessing their dubious reliance on China as an intermediary, and should re-engage North Korea directly. But we know it is impossible and ineffective to settle the problem of North Korea by going completely around China.

Reports say that a few months ago, China turned in a proposition to resume the Six-Party talks, but their proposition did not demand that North Korea take any specific, concrete steps as preconditions for the resumption. But now, after the purge of the Jang faction, to what degree will China harden her posture vis-à-vis North Korea? It is crucial, and as Amb. Hill suggested in a recent article, “how China handles its responsibilities in North Korea is very much related to its broader aspirations.”

China has a new posture, and South Korea, the U.S. and Japan cooperate with it. That could be the one and only strategy to ease the North Korean problem. Japan should cooperate and contribute as much as she can. But having said that, we, the majority of Japanese, have a most unsettled feeling. We wonder, are others willing to let Japan make a cooperative contribution?       

Three years ago, the No. 1 threat that worried us was overwhelmingly the perennial menace posed by unpredictable North Korea. Today we have two great concerns. Our No. 1 worry concerns China’s military reinforcement, expansion and advance at sea related to its broader aspirations. Our No. 2 worry is about the very strong anti-Japan feelings and movements in both China and South Korea, and the worldwide campaign of accusation against Japan by those two countries.


Not a few Japanese, in particular leftists, feel sympathy with the anti-Japan feeling and even with the worldwide campaign. They criticize Abe for what they see as a lackluster effort to improve ties with our two neighbors. To many Japanese, it seems that China and South Korea will only be satisfied if Japan will prostrate itself on the ground before them, and if they can eliminate Japan’s presence in the power equation. If that is the case, even if Japan wants to cooperate in solving this problem and that problem, can she be effective in doing that?

Strategic understanding and cooperation between the U.S. and China should be essential for the peace in the world, as Amb. Hill suggests. But would it not end in a tacit approval of China’s advance by the U.S.?

U.S. President Obama’s foreign policy “pivot to Asia” has never been given a detailed and complete explanation.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned supporting allies but not supporting either the advance of China or North Korea’s nuclear development. Some people remember that in 2012, when China captured the Scarborough Shoal in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the U.S. did little in response.

Prime Minister Abe underscores that the Japan-U.S. alliance is now very stable.

Nevertheless, some discrepancies between Japan and the U.S. were brought to light recently with regard to Japan’s relationship with South Korea and China including differences in dealing with China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and the official expression of dissatisfaction by the U.S., with Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.

With a view to strengthening the alliance with the U.S., and facilitating Japan’s peacekeeping operations activities, the Abe government is now preparing to tackle the issue of the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. This could cause further friction for Japan with South Korea and China and further division domestically within our country.

Regarding North Korea, it seems that Japan has had no meaningful contact with it for a long time. No progress has been made toward resolving the abduction issue. The execution of Jang Song-thaek might have added further negative effects for Japan as well.

Therefore, Japan has difficulties and worries on several fronts. But I want to stress to our South Korean friends that, as Prime Minister Abe pointed out in his policy speech to the Diet the other day, we maintain our belief that good relations between Japan and South Korea are most essential to peace, security and prosperity in East Asia.

I was impressed with some of the results of recent joint opinion polls done last March and April by a Japanese NGO and South Korean institute. I was impressed, of course, with the low scores related to each country’s impression of the other.

However, I was also impressed with the responses to the question: “Do you think the relationship between the two countries is important?” Approximately 74 percent of both South Koreans and Japanese responded “yes,” while only 6 percent of South Koreans and 7 percent of Japanese said “no.” A big majority of South Koreans as well as Japanese understand at least the importance of our relationship.

We know that South Koreans are increasingly expressing their anger against Japan regarding problems related to past history, to the possession of the islands and so on, and South Koreans worry about a resurgence of a militarily strong Japan.

But, I would like to assure you that 99 percent of Japanese would disapprove of the resurgence of militarism and that the possibility for Japan to carry out a military attack one day against the disputed islands is way less than zero. We would say, “minus 300 percent zero.”

South Koreans and Japanese, apart from criticism and blame toward each other, must cooperate on practical matters and admit frankly that the good things between us are “good.” For example, recently Japan provided South Korean peacekeeping troops in South Sudan with ammunition in response to the Korean commander’s urgent request to the Japanese peacekeeping troops on the spot. But the reaction of the South Korean government and media to this cooperation was overly cool and severe, without mentioning the name of Japan or saying “thank you.”

In my lecture on international relations at my university, I touch upon problems between Japan and South Korea. There is one thing that I never fail to speak about. That is a monument at the Shinokubo railway station in Tokyo, an engraved plate that commemorates Mr. Lee Soo Hyun, young Korean student who was struck by a train and killed while trying very bravely to rescue a Japanese man who had fallen off the edge of the station’s platform. We should not forget this noble behavior.

To fully participate in solutions to the North Korean problem, the Japanese hope to take part in cooperative international efforts and contribute as much as possible. Let us be able to do so.