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Facing Down from Opposite Sides: Japanese and South Korean Leadership on North Korea

On Thursday, September 14, 2017, just days after the UN passed a resolution to impose strict new sanctions on North Korea, the South Korean government announced that it would give $8 million in aid money to UN programs in the North. North Korea conducted a further missile launch the following day, but within hours of the test, the South Korean government confirmed that it still intended to supply the aid money.

Alongside the precarious exchange of repeated weapons tests from North Korea and inflammatory statements from U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have vowed to work together to impose tougher sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime. However, the two leaders have demonstrated that they believe in vastly different approaches to the situation surrounding North Korea. The new aid money from South Korea is a striking example of this.

In addition to being a politician, Moon is a former human rights lawyer and the son of a North Korean refugee. He has argued that relief efforts such as these should be considered separately from politics, and since taking office in May, he has consistently dismissed the idea that South Korea and its allies should resort to military action in response to North Korea’s weapons tests.

Japan’s conservative Abe, in contrast, has espoused a more hardline and aggressive approach and repeatedly stood by Trump’s bellicose statements. The Friday of the North Korean weapons test and subsequent announcement from the South Korean government, Abe called Moon and urged him to reconsider the decision based on the timing of the aid and the missile launch.

Though the South Korean government intends to follow through on providing the aid money to the UN, there have been signs over the past few weeks of shifts in Moon’s stance towards the North. Is it possible that he is beginning to feel pressured into falling more closely in line with Abe and Trump?


Moon is a liberal president who was elected to office in May after spending his time on the campaign trail contrasting himself with South Korea’s previous conservative leadership. Former President Park Geun-hye had recently been impeached and removed from office following accusations that she had accepted bribes from influential corporations and allowed a personal friend undue authority. In response, Moon pledged to crack down on corruption within the South Korean government and to bring reform to powerful corporations.

As Moon’s victory looked increasingly likely, international observers were quick to predict a change in South Korea’s approach to the North. Moon criticized the hardline approaches taken by the South’s conservative administrations, saying that they had proven to be unsuccessful. Instead, he promised increased dialogue with the North, and his calm, diplomatic tone struck a hopeful note that appealed to many voters.

Since taking office, Moon has repeatedly dismissed military action as a solution to North Korea’s continued weapons tests. He has consistently pushed the diplomatic option and supported sanctions against the North.

Following Trump’s inflammatory “fire and fury” threat in August, Moon rebuked the US president in a televised speech, saying, “Our government will do everything it can to prevent war from breaking out.”

In the same speech, Moon emphasized that “the purpose of strong sanctions and pressure against North Korea is to bring it to the negotiating table, not to raise military tensions.”

Abe, however, has often fallen closely in line with Trump in his reactions to North Korea’s weapons tests.

In an op-ed published in The New York Times on Sunday, September 17, 2017, Abe repeatedly calls on the international community to maintain pressure on North Korea. However, his statements on diplomacy stand in stark contrast to tone taken by Moon’s government.

“Everyone aspires to a peaceful solution to these challenges. And global solidarity is of utmost importance,” Abe writes.

“Still, prioritizing diplomacy and emphasizing the importance of dialogue will not work with North Korea. History shows that concerted pressure by the entire international community is essential.” Considering past broken promises from North Korea and its continued weapons tests, Abe argues that “more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end.”

Though Trump’s rhetoric regarding North Korea has been seen as unpredictable and reckless by many, Abe has cultivated an image of Japan and the United States as close allies united in opposing North Korea.

“Japan has responded by reaffirming the ironclad Japan-United States alliance, and Japan has coordinated in lock step with the United States and South Korea. I firmly support the United States position that all options are on the table,” writes Abe, in reference to a statement made by Trump after North Korea launched a missile over Japan in late August.

Abe’s hawkish posturing towards North Korea, however, could be a means for him to achieve separate goals domestically.

On September 25, 2017, Abe called a snap election in Japan, moving up the country’s lower house parliamentary election by more than a year. In a subsequent press conference, Abe made clear that he will see this election as an assessment of not only his work on domestic issues but also of his handling of the situation in North Korea.  

Abe’s ratings have lifted by almost 20 percentage points since July, from 30 to 50 percent. Abe is well aware of the fact that his spike in popularity is largely due to the Japanese public’s approval of his hardline approach to North Korea. By calling the election fourteen months earlier than necessary, he is also hoping to capitalize on the disarray that many Japanese opposition parties currently find themselves in.

These seem to be factors in which Abe is placing a great deal of trusthe has said that he will step down from his position as prime minister if the Liberal Democratic party (LDP) fails to win a majority.

Another important thing to note is the fact that Abe has long had his sights on revising Japan’s pacifist constitution. Though his party’s victory in the October 22 election is far from assured, the decision to call a snap election in order to shore up his party’s power could be a calculated move towards amending the constitution.

The current constitution was imposed by the United States in 1947 following its victory over Japan in World War II. It is referred to as pacifist because it limits Japan’s military capabilities to self-defense.

During his time in office, Abe has sought to broaden the context to which this label can be applied. In 2015, he facilitated the passage of legislation that allows the Japanese military to engage in combat missions with allies overseas in so-called “collective self-defense.” Abe’s recent rhetoric and his alignment with Trump’s threats of military action demonstrate his will to expand the role of Japan’s military in the region.


There are still signs that Moon, under the unrelenting pressure of weapons tests from North Korea and the hawkish attitudes taken by Trump and Abe, is beginning to harden his stance towards North Korea. Soon after taking office, Moon ordered that the US’s deployment of a terminal high altitude area defense missile system (THAAD) in South Korea be delayed. After new missile launches from North Korea, however, he reversed that decision.

After meeting at the G20 summit in July, Trump, Abe and Moon jointly agreed to work together in order to build up Japan and South Korea’s defense capabilities. This was an unusual agreement for the South Korean government to make with Japan, as South Korea has generally been hesitant to allow actions that could lead to Japan’s rearmament.

And following North Korea’s launch of an intermediate-range missile that traveled over Japan on Friday, September 15, 2017, Moon said that further talks with the country would be “impossible” unless the North ceased its provocative behavior.

Such shifts in tone have not come without backlash, however. As Moon has appeared to succumb to pressure from his allies and the unrelenting attitude of the North, some liberal politicians in South Korea have criticized Moon for what they see as changes in his position. Some have argued that the forcefulness of Abe and Trump’s words will only encourage the North to conduct further weapons tests, and that Moon should continue to seek negotiation with Pyongyang instead.


Meanwhile, the war of words between Trump and Kim continues to escalate as the rest of the world looks on apprehensively. The relative unwillingness of China and Russia to face down North Korea seems to have left Moon with Trump and Abe to turn to as major partners in opposing Kim Jong-un.

Yet Trump’s impulsive actions have only served to increase tensions on the Korean peninsula. Though American foreign policy has become increasingly confused under the current administration, Trump has made it abundantly clear, through his impulsive and provocative statements, that ensuring the safety of the Korean and Japanese people has never been one of his priorities. He has shown that he has little interest in learning about the complex histories that have shaped politics in East Asia, nor in considering the implications of his words. Many South Koreans have noted Trump’s unreliability, and it is perhaps one reason why a president taking a more calm and reconciliatory approach has been favored there.

Abe’s maneuvers seem to indicate that he is willing to use the situation to advance his own ambitions on the homefront, but alignment with an erratic and unempathetic figure such as Trump is dangerous in a situation like this.

There are nearly 25 million people living in the metropolitan area of Seoul alone. Twenty-five million more live across the border that lies only 35 miles north. Millions more live in the rest of South Korea and Japan, but Trump seems to feel that he is removed from all of them. In this situation, Trump’s is not the side to take, and military escalations and forceful rhetoric are unlikely to bring stability to the region. Perhaps it is not Moon’s charity, then, which is in poor timing, but Abe and his push for an increased role of his military.