The arrival of a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at a South Korean port last week irked North Korea, which has recently mixed a show of force with some conciliatory gestures in an apparent bid to break out of its growing isolation. The 97,000-ton USS George Washington is now participating in a joint drill with South Korean naval ships, which will be followed by a trilateral search and rescue exercise with Japan in waters south of Jejudo Island next week.
Pyongyang denounced the moves as a “grave unpardonable provocation” and an “ill-willed challenge” to stability on the Korean Peninsula. But it did its part to raise the tension by launching ballistic missiles into the sea off its eastern coast Sunday and firing a barrage of rockets and artillery shells into the same waters the following day.
Out of keeping with the recalcitrant regime’s recent rhetoric and behavior is its silence about Japan’s move to enable itself to go into battle beyond its borders in defense of allies. On July 1, Japan’s Cabinet led by hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a reinterpretation of the country’s war-renouncing Constitution to allow its military to exercise the right to collective self-defense.
The communist state’s reticence about Tokyo’s measure to ensure that its military can take action in the event of a contingency on the peninsula seems to go against its founding principles.
It is also equally notable that the North’s foul-mouthed state media has barely touched on the Abe government’s attempts to gloss over Japan’s pre-1945 wartime atrocities. It has just looked on while South Korea and China have gone about forming a joint front against Japan’s historical revisionism. During his visit here early this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping tried to draw Seoul closer to Beijing by mentioning the common pains they suffered from Japan’s past aggressions.
Seoul officials may now have to avoid becoming fixated on the past to the extent of weakening the crucial trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan. In contrast, Pyongyang has shown no reaction to Tokyo’s moves to water down its 1993 apology over its wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women. It has also overlooked a series of Japanese politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where convicted war criminals are enshrined with other war dead.
What we are witnessing now is a failed regime that is becoming isolated from the rekindled historical discourse in Northeast Asia, regardless of whether it is relevant or helpful for regional cooperation and prosperity. This self-imposed calmness is certainly not characteristic of the North, which has based the legitimacy of its oppressive regime on myths built around its founding leader Kim Il-sung’s struggle against Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.
Pyongyang’s silence about Tokyo’s revisionist course of action appears to have resulted from its wish to maintain an atmosphere conducive for improving ties with Japan. Frustrated with the principled stance of President Park Geun-hye’s government in Seoul and out of favor with China, its only remaining major ally, the North may well regard enhancing relations with Japan as a way out of its isolation.
Pyongyang has been active in reinvestigating the abduction of Japanese nationals to the North decades earlier, drawing out Tokyo’s decision early this month to lift some of its unilateral sanctions on the communist regime.
For his part, Abe seems to be mulling closer ties with North Korea as an effective form of leverage against the strengthening partnership between Seoul and Beijing. It has yet to be seen whether he will push his diplomatic gamble to the point of normalizing relations with the North before the long-standing nuclear standoff is resolved. But officials in Seoul and Washington appear concerned about the possibility of Abe making an abrupt visit to Pyongyang as early as next month, opening the way for the establishment of formal ties between the two sides.
The potential normalization talks, however, might be a moment of truth for North Korea’s oppressive regime, which is struggling for survival.
South Korea failed to clarify the coerciveness of the 1910 treaty on Japan’s annexation of the peninsula when they set up formal diplomatic ties in 1965 because of its need for economic assistance. If Pyongyang ended up striking a similar tone or leaving the matter even more ambiguous, what remains of its tattered legitimacy would be dashed. Making clear Japan’s responsibility for its forceful rule of the peninsula might give the North the unexpected honor of helping settle historical disputes involving regional powers.
The normalization of ties with Japan on the latter condition accompanied by due compensation might also serve as an occasion for North Korea to be reborn as an eligible member of the international community.
Any mention of historical matters, sensible or not, from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the regime’s founder, would provide a glimpse of North Korea’s stance in future talks with Japan. Regretfully, the young dictator has recently seemed too busy guiding a series of military exercises to take time to sort out his thoughts on the crucial issue. But is he capable of doing so, anyhow?
By Kim Kyung-ho
Kim Kyung-ho is an editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.