TOKYO (IPS)–Japan is walking a political tightrope, balancing its traditional support for the United Nations against the strategic value it puts on Washington’s backing as tension grows on the Korean peninsula.

Tokyo found itself in a bind before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, caught between its ties with the United States and widespread pacifist demonstrations at home.

Now, in the wake of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tokyo finds itself trying to find a middle ground between sticking by the United Nations and supporting U.S. plans for running post-Saddam Iraq–plans that have been criticized for supposed insensitivity to Middle Eastern realities.


Japan is worried by neighboring North Korea’s bellicose statements about U.S. ‘threats’ and warnings that it will fight back if Washington attacks, although there are reports that Pyongyang may now be open to multilateral talks on its nuclear program instead of the unilateral talks with the U.S. it had been demanding.

“The dilemma in a nutshell,” said political analyst Kichiya Kobayashi, “is trying to keep Washington happy to defend Japan from North Korea, and at the same time supporting the United Nations so as to prevent such an attack.”

In visits to Paris, London and Beijing, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi has been talking about the need for the international community to be part of rebuilding Iraq, for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution that cements such cooperation, and for the United States and Europe to mend fences over Iraq.

Yukio Okamoto, diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, said after a recent trip to the Middle East, that Tokyo also has to help Egypt, Jordan and other countries in the region, whose oil is vital to Japan’s economy.

“Japan has to think about the entire Arab world,” he told NHK Television. “The Arab world is unhappy with the war, and the initial euphoria about ousting Saddam could change if there is no progress on the economic and political front in Iraq.”

Officially, the Japanese line has been that the United Nations–the institution that Tokyo has long been urging to ‘reform’ while asking for a bigger role for countries like Japan–must have a major role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

But others read the political scene differently. They say that U.S. military success in Iraq shows that it is worth it for Japan to have Washington staunchly on its side especially given its worries over North Korea’s nuclear program and the United States’ anger over it.

Therefore, they argue, Tokyo should stand by Washington in the wake of criticism about its plans to designate a retired general, Jay Garner, to head the interim administration and report to the chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks.

Keiko Otsuru, who teaches international relations at Kansai University, argued that standing firm against the U.S.-led war would have better served Japan’s policy of engagement with North Korea, instead of relying on the U.S. security umbrella that only makes Pyongyang even more hostile toward Japan.

But the foreground of Japan-U.S. ties is their 1952 security pact which, after Japan’s defeat in World War II, allowed U.S. military bases to stay in return for the defense of Japanese territory. This has been the linchpin of a relationship that has seen Japan’s foreign policy stand steadfast behind the United States for 50 years.

The issue of North Korea certainly makes Japan’s position on the U.S. and UN role in a post-war Iraq an even more complicated one.

Japan needs U.S. protection in case North Korea lashes out at its neighbors. But it also wants to be on the good side of the United Nations because it wants a political dialogue on North Korea. Tokyo had been pushing for this, along with China and South Korea.

Thus, while Tokyo has been trying to keep U.S. support, it has also been working on nurturing contacts with its neighbors, China and South Korea, for a multilateral solution and dialogue to the North Korean issue.

Ms. Kawaguchi went on a three-day visit to Beijing to boost ties and solidify a UN role for containing any possible conflict around the issue of North Korea.

She was partially successful. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who had earlier turned down a visit to Japan, told Ms. Kawaguchi that China’s leadership is ready to improve and strengthen ties with Japan.

Experts contend that the Japanese Foreign Minister’s trip demonstrates a growing urgency in East Asia to put forward a united front for a diplomatic settlement on North Korea.

Already, in recent years and not least because of North Korea’s missile testing, many Japanese have been fretting about a possible conflict in the Korean peninsula. Some of these worries can be seen in proposals in the Diet, or Parliament, for measures by which Japan can address a possible conflict.

The LDP-led coalition plans to pass through the lower house of Parliament emergency bills for the deployment of Japan’s Self Defense Forces in the event of a national emergency.