Analysis: N. Korea blockade would pose risks for Japan
TOKYO — If the United States decrees a partial blockade of renegade North Korea, would Washington be able to count on Tokyo to help? Or would the U.S. ally opt to sit this one out?
Those are among questions facing U.S. military and security policy-makers more than two weeks after talks among North Korea, the United States and China broke down, prompting Washington to declare, “All options are on the table.”
One of those options might be a selective naval blockade of North Korea as the next step, some U.S. officials hint, if the communist nation continues its alleged nuclear weapons program.
The plan could mirror a scaled-down version of the U.S. Cuban blockade during 1962’s Cuban missile crisis. “It’s kind of a Cuba Lite strategy,” an unnamed Pentagon official told The Sunday Telegraph in London. “It wouldn’t be a total blockade. International shipping would not necessarily be blocked from going in to North Korea but the passage of North Korean shipping would be contingent on what we knew was being carried.”
The move, political experts say, would strive to block delivery of nuclear weapons to terrorists and rogue nations and pressure cash-strapped North Korea into more talks.
Among the only ways “North Korea earns hard currency is selling missile components,” said international military security expert George Quester. A blockade, said the University of Maryland government and politics professor, could “put the squeeze on.”
Japan’s Kyodo News quoted an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official as saying Washington would expect Tokyo to cooperate in any blockade.
But Japan would find it a tough political decision, especially if China and South Korea disagree. A blockade normally is considered an act of war, Quester said: “It’s a risk. The world could get mad at you.”
China probably won’t openly endorse a blockade, he said, but “would they want us to fail? The answer is no. What I hear, through back channels, is China has been putting pressure on North Korea but very quietly.”
Although Japan’s constitution bars military action save for self-defense, analysts say Japan might be asked to conduct sea patrols, help inspect ships and supply U.S. warships. A Japan Defense Agency spokesman said the Maritime Self-Defense Force could inspect ships to maintain economic sanctions used for self-defense. MSDF may check a vessel’s destination and cargo.
Asked whether the United States has sought Japanese cooperation in a blockade, the spokesman said, “We are not aware of any discussion or request.” He noted that MSDF never has inspected ships nor participated in a blockade.
James Auer, a former naval officer assigned to Japan, now directs Vanderbilt University’s Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation. He said Japan must consider its own self-preservation.
Because a North Korea with nuclear weapons would be “a threat to the security of both the United States and Japan, there is certainly justification of both governments taking action in self-defense,” he told Stripes in an e-mail interview this past week.
But North Korea’s alleged nuclear arms cache could prompt Japan to back away from open cooperation, Quester said.
“If I was sitting around the discussions of the Japanese government, I would say, ‘Do we want to needlessly get out in front of a bull that’s going to get mad at someone? Let’s blur our role as much as possible.’”
The smart thing for Japan? Play innocent, Quester said. Tokyo could claim: “We don’t know what that ship going out of Yokosuka is going to do. We’re not centrally involved in this.”
Toshio Miyatsuka, professor of modern Korean economic history at Japan’s Yamanashi Gakuin University, predicted Japan would cooperate with the United States.
“Currently, the government is taking a hard-line stance with North Korea. There is an abduction issue, and the government cannot ignore the problem,” he said, referring to Japanese anger over Pyongyang’s recent disclosures that for decades, it has abducted Japanese nationals, forcing them to help train its spies.
Japan’s support will depend on whether a blockade is unilateral, said Choong Nam Kim, former political affairs assistant for two South Korean presidents. He’s now an East-West Center research fellow.
The U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty allows Japanese support for U.S. military activity around Northeast Asia, Kim said, but “this will be a very sensitive matter if China opposes it.” Should South Korea also disagree, helping a blockade might risk fueling anti-Japanese sentiment across the Sea of Japan, Kim said.
Quester speculates the U.S. Navy — with help from satellite and aerial reconnaissance — could enforce a blockade without Japanese assistance. “There are not that many ships going in and out of North Korea,” he said. “North Korea is not part of the vibrant world economy.”
But, Auer points out, “Since U.S. assets are ... still engaged heavily in the Middle East, having Japanese assistance — Japanese naval ships and surveillance aircraft particularly — would be extremely helpful.”
He speculates a blockade would concentrate on ships leaving North Korea but inbound vessels’ suspicious activities also might be a focus.
Quester says timing is critical. “It’s got the risk of driving the North Koreans into something really wild,” he says. “The North Koreans can do a lot more damage than Saddam Hussein.”
Kim, however, says Japanese need not fear a North Korean missile attack: “Any retaliation would bring all-out war, which means the end of North Korea. I think North Korea would be very careful and cautious.”