Constitutional Re-Interpretation in Japan I: the North Korean Angle

July 11, 2014 7:15 AM

Opinion has been divided about Prime Minister Abe’s decision to reinterpret the constitution’s Article IX constraints on the Japanese military. Some are skeptical of the extent of change or its significance (for example Adam Liff for CSIS); others—including the Chinese—are concerned about its implications for the regional security architecture. Regardless of these differences, North Korea has played an important role in justifying the process, and could affect support for the reinterpretation as it winds its way through the domestic political process (we look at that support in more detail in a subsequent post).

Abe’s first policy speech as Prime Minister in 2006 invoked the North Korean threat to justify greater centralization of the foreign policy-making process and tighter coordination with the US.  As Sugio Takahasi among others has noted this process had been going on since the 1997 revision of the US-Japan defense guidelines. The guideline revisions created a bilateral coordination mechanism, coined the term “situation in the area surrounding Japan”—so-called “grey zone crises”--and set in train closer operational cooperation around ballistic missile defense in particular. When Abe established a “panel of experts” in April 2007 to make recommendations about constitutional revision, the inability of Japan to use such a system in defense of non-Japan-based US military assets was one of the particular constraints the committee was asked to consider.

The current re-interpretation was also justified by a series of hypothetical scenarios in which Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) are currently limited from acting; the Wall Street Journal provided a convenient list in May. Among them were a number of contingencies that related to Japan’s role in peace-keeping operations. But many related to the capacity of the Japanese Self Defense Forces to cooperate with the US on operations that would most plausibly be associated with North Korea, including both missile defense and naval cooperation:

  • U.S. Ships on Ballistic Missile Alert. A U.S. Aegis-class warship in waters near Japan is tracking the launch of an enemy ballistic missile aimed at a different target (read Guam, Hawaii or even the US mainland). Even were the US engaged in military conflict with the aggressor nation, the SDF can’t aid in its defense.
  • U.S.-Aimed Ballistic Missile Interception. Were ballistic missiles fired by a country attacking the U.S. and headed for Guam, Hawaii or the US mainland, Japan could not intercept them even while in Japan’s airspace.
  • U.S. Counterattack Near Japan.  If an aggressor nation located near Japan were to attack the U.S. mainland with a ballistic missile, U.S. forces engaged in counterattack operations taking place near Japan might seek Japanese support in defense of U.S. logistical support ships. Yet even with the “rear area” defense of such support developed in the Korean War, the SDF’s hands could currently be tied.
  • U.S. Ships Under Attack Near Japan. Similar constraints operate in naval operations. Japan can’t provide protection for U.S. ships under enemy attack in nearby neutral waters.
  • Foreign Submarines in Japanese Territorial Waters. The SDF can request a foreign submarine in Japan’s territorial waters to surface or leave Japanese waters, but can do little more even if the submarine ignores Japan’s warnings.

The reinterpretation does not immediately grant carte blanche to the SDF to act in each of these cases, in part because the LDP’s coalition partner New Komeito extracted a vague set of conditions with respect to the exercise of collective self-defense. In combination, they appear to reiterate the strong bias toward purely self-defensive actions in which Japan itself is threatened:

  • Japan can come to the aid of an ally with which it has a “very close relationship”—the US is the only country that fits this description--if there is a threat to Japanese citizens’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, and happiness; and
  • No diplomatic means is available for accomplishing these objectives; and
  • The use of military force is kept to a “bare minimum.”

This “reinterpretation” is far from over; Abe’s effort to circumvent the Diet is not really feasible as the “reinterpretation” will need to be translated ultimately into law. All of these scenarios could easily be reimagined to involve China. But North Korea has historically played an important role in the shadow play. If Japan-North Korea rapprochement were to continue, could it make the “reinterpretation” process more complicated?

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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