Battling on many fronts

Attempts to reunite the Korean Peninsula have created deep anxiety within Japan. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe remains as hawkish as ever on North Korea and has now been drawn into a trade war with Seoul. As Duncan Bartlett  reports, the shrill language of conflict is growing louder

It won’t be long before a group of North Korean fighters, having applied to take part in the World Judo Championships this September, try to hurl their opponents to the ground inside Japan’s most iconic sports venue, the Nippon Budokan, in Tokyo. Although the Budokanwas built specifically for martial arts tournaments, it has also been used as a venue by many pop and rock stars including The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Deep Purple.

While Japan usually tries to block people from North Korea from entering the country and applies strict sanctions in an attempt to isolate Pyongyang’s economy, a loophole allows the North Koreans to take part in sports tournaments. North Korean women in matching outfits were delighted to be the centre of media attention at the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang. Their country’s propaganda department will be hoping for more photo opportunities at the Budokan.

Enemy territory

For some traditionalists in Japan, the Budokan and the sport of judo are almost sacred symbols of their cultural heritage and conservatives will balk at the thought of the North Koreans unfurling their flag at the world judo event.

Japan does not recognise North Korea as a sovereign state, nor are there any diplomatic relations between the two nations. In July, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described Japan as its ‘sworn enemy’ and accused the Japanese of trying to ‘destroy the trend towards peace’ on the Korean peninsula.

Tough line

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been consistently tough on the North Koreans, in contrast to the more friendly approach of US President Donald Trump and the left-leaning South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in. Both men have met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un several times.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency described Japan as its ‘sworn enemy’

Mr Abe’s critics complain that he is a hardliner who cannot see the value of compromise. However, others think he may have sidestepped a political trap.

The Oxford University Professor Rana Mitter believes that ‘Kim Jong-un has seduced the presidents of America, China and South Korea into following his overall agenda without giving any real concession so far’.

Professor Mitter maintains that the North Korean leader is not insane but is ‘one of the most rational if ruthless leaders of any dictatorship today’.

Joint forces

Another striking sports event in Tokyo next year will see a team made up of judo athletes from both North and South Korea competing jointly in the 2020 Olympics.This will leave spectators in the strange position of watching fighters from Japan’s self-declared ‘sworn enemy’ join forces with one of its allies in a martial arts battle.Yet although South Korea is an ally of Japan, the relationship between the two countries isseverely strained and Mr Abe declined to meet President Moon face-to-face at the recent G20 summit in Osaka.

HISTORIC MOMENT: Trump (l) steps on to North Korean soil on Jun 30, accompanied by Kim Jong-un
HISTORIC MOMENT: Trump (l) steps on to North Korean soil on Jun 30, accompanied by Kim Jong-un

Tensions between Japan and South Korea go back centuries, with Japan’s colonisation of Korea between 1910 and 1945 still deeply resented. Mr Abe is irked at suggestions that Japanese firms should compensate the victims of forced labour from that period: he believes the matter was legally resolved long ago.

Yet this contentious issue continues to stir emotion. Tensions escalated recently when a South Korean man set himself on fire outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul on July 19 and subsequently died. On the same day, the Japanese foreign minister nearly lost his temper during a meeting with the South Korean ambassador in Tokyo.

Trade war

This rift widened further when Japan announced plans to restrict exports to South Korea of specialised materials used to make semiconductors and smartphone devices. South Korea’s President Moon claimed the move caused an ‘unprecedented emergency’ for his country’s economy and has retaliated with tariffs on Japan.

The North Koreans are pleased to see tensions rising and are attempting to fan the flames of disagreement. They have decided to use their propaganda to side with the South, talking in chilling terms of Japan’s ‘destruction’.

Despite the trade war and diplomatic disagreements, Japan and South Korea remain crucially important to each other. They are prosperous democracies and have good reason to feel anxious about the trade war between China and the United States, which is causing them both to consider their strategic allegiances.

When it comes to North Korea, both would like to see complete denuclearisation, although they have different views on how to achieve this.The South Koreans recognise that Kim Jong-un presents an ongoing threat which is best defended with the help of military allies. Professor Mitter says that Kim still ‘has the power to turn East Asia into a wasteland with his conventional and nuclear arsenal’.

Trump’s approach

President Trump’s surprise visit to the demilitarised zone on the Korean border included a walk of 20 steps into North Korea. This has paved the way for further talks but did nothing to calm the anxiety of Japan. Mr Trump claims that South Korea’s President Moon has asked him if he can act as peacemaker.

‘He tells me that they have a lot of friction going on now with respect to trade, primarily with respect to trade. And Japan has some things that South Korea wants, and he asked me to get involved,’ Mr Trump told reporters at the White House.

‘It’s like a full-time job getting involved with Japan and South Korea. But I like both leaders,’ he said.

Mr Trump also appears to have respect for North Korean’s leader Kim Jong-un and has referred to the ‘beautiful letters’ he has received from Pyongyang.

Soon after his last trip to Asia, Mr Trump hung a picture of himself talking with Mr Kim on the wall in the White House, placing it proudly beside a photograph of his meeting with the Queen of England.


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo

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