Motoko Rich, New York Times
25 August 2016
TOKYO – The missile that North Korea test-fired from a submarine off its east coast on Wednesday momentarily brought together three nations that have recently had reasons to squabble.
At a previously scheduled meeting in Tokyo, the foreign ministers of the three nations – China, Japan and South Korea – criticized the missile test, which appeared to demonstrate a significant advance in North Korea’s efforts to build a harder-to-detect means to strike American and allied forces. The missile flew 310 miles toward Japan, much farther than previous tests.
Tensions between the three countries have risen in recent months: Chinese vessels have repeatedly entered disputed waters surrounding a group of Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea, setting off protests from Japan. Tokyo opposed a visit this month by South Korean lawmakers to islands both nations claims. And China has harshly criticized South Korea’s agreement to host an American-built advanced missile defense system that the Chinese believe could be used against their missiles.
But North Korea’s missile launch briefly united the three other nations on Wednesday.
“If there was a silver lining, it would be the fact that it provided the three an opportunity to have something in common, which is rare,” said J. Berkshire Miller, an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
If the North Korean threat is to be truly defused, experts say, the three East Asian neighbors will need more common ground.
“We all know that on days when North Korea doesn’t test missiles, tensions may be above the surface,” said Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But longer term, if you’re looking for conditions that would suggest real stability in the region, that is the sort of cooperation that would be needed.”
The latest missile test came two days after the United States and South Korea kicked off their annual joint military exercises. North Korea condemns all such drills as rehearsals for an invasion, and it has often responded with warlike words, or with missile tests.
At a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday, Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, said North Korea’s action “is simply not tolerated.” His South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, said the three countries “confirmed our common view that we must deter North Korea’s further provocative actions.”
Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, said, “China opposes the development of North Korea’s nuclear program, and any words or deeds that create tensions in the peninsula.” He also reiterated China’s opposition to American efforts to build the missile defense system in South Korea.
Chinese commentators argued that the United States was partly to blame for the North’s aggressive behavior. An opinion article published on Wednesday by the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, denounced the United States and its allies for “risking turning the region into a powder keg.”
“Muscle-flexing leads to nowhere but a more anxious, more agitating and thus more unpredictable Pyongyang,” the commentary said.
Still, on social media in China, many posts placed the blame squarely on Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, describing him as an erratic and untrustworthy leader and urging the government to do more to rein him in.
President Park Geun-hye of South Korea also denounced the North Korean leader in remarks during a visit to a front-line military unit on Wednesday.
“Given the fact that North Korea has an irrational decision-making system under a one-man dictatorship,” Ms. Park said, “and that Kim Jong-un is an unpredictable character, there is a high possibility that this threat could become a reality.”
The latest North Korean provocation comes at a time when Japan, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is debating its military future after roughly 70 years of pacifism mandated by a postwar Constitution that was largely written by American occupiers.
Already last year, Mr. Abe pushed through a series of security laws that permit Japan’s self-defense forces to participate in overseas combat.
On Wednesday, as Mr. Abe denounced the North Korean missile launch as an “an unforgivable act of violence,” his newly appointed defense minister, Tomomi Inada, said Japanese forces would begin training for overseas missions, including rescuing captured troops from peacekeeping missions.
Setsu Kobayashi, a law professor emeritus at Keio University and the leader of a group that opposes the security bills passed last year, called the new training drills a “historic turning point” and a violation of the country’s Constitution.
“Now people outside of Japan will question if Japan can become a country that can wage war,” Mr. Kobayashi said.
But other analysts said that the Japanese, who mostly opposed the security laws passed after a parliamentary struggle last year, might start to accept the incremental escalation of military activity that Mr. Abe is pushing.
“The more that there are dangers in the neighborhood – a rising China, a threatening North Korea – that puts wind in Abe’s sails,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
Ultimately, Mr. Abe wants to revise the pacifist clause in the Constitution. But the public – as well as members of Parliament, including some in Mr. Abe’s governing coalition – would most likely oppose him.
“Even with this more threatening environment, it’s not going to be easy at all,” Mr. Kingston said. “There is a deeply embedded attachment to the peace Constitution as part of Japanese national identity.”
Mr. Abe, Mr. Kingston added, “understands that he has a deep hole to climb out of to try to convince the public that that is necessary.”
Public reaction in Japan to the North Korean missile test was relatively subdued, although several politicians strongly protested it..
Hideaki Omura, the governor of Aichi Prefecture in central Japan, which includes the city of Nagoya, said on Twitter that the missile launch was a “grave provocation.” Renho Murata, a member of the upper house of Parliament and a candidate to lead the opposition Democratic Party, said she “firmly protested” North Korea’s action.
The significance of North Korea’s missile launch may take some time to sink in, as the Japanese have become somewhat accustomed to the missile tests.
“For Japanese people, the picture of the Chinese vessels surrounding the Senkakus is more shocking,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a research group, referring to the Chinese incursions around the disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The North Korean missile launches, Mr. Watanabe said, sometimes “look like animation.”
Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo; Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea; and Javier Hernandez from Beijing.