The provocations by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) may be a double-edged sword for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who reportedly intends to dissolve the lower house of parliament and call a snap general election for late October.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will likely highlight the necessity of a strong government to handle the DPRK’s nuclear and missile threats. Two DPRK missiles that were fired over Hokkaido Island, and a nuclear test on Sept 3, have triggered anxiety and fear in Japan.
The DPRK has threatened to “sink” Japanese islands with nuclear weapons. A total of six DPRK missiles have so far passed over Japanese territory, which, as The Yomiuri Shimbun said, may become routine events.
Japan’s J-Alert was issued in 12 prefectures including Hokkaido, encouraging people to evacuate to a sturdy building or basement, when the DPRK fired missiles over Japan on Aug 29 and Sept 15.
The warnings issued were the most widespread since the system was put into operation in 2007. But many people said they found no shelters.
So, a growing number of people in Japan are promoting self-reliance, with air-tight underground nuclear bunkers built under their houses. Residents in many parts of the nation have held evacuation drills for a simulated DPRK missile attack.
As the DPRK presses on with missile and nuclear tests, Abe may find it easier to sell his idea of building a strong military. In a signed article published in The New York Times on Sept 17, Abe said Japan faces the threat of missiles — short and medium range — together with the possibility of chemical weapons attacks. He dismissed dialogue with the DPRK.
“Now is the time to exert the utmost pressure on the North. There should be no more delays,” Abe wrote. “I firmly support the United States position that all options are on the table.”
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept 19, US President Donald Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the DPRK if the US is forced to defend itself or its allies against the renegade nation’s nuclear weapons program.
Revision of Japan’s constitution is likely to be one of the main issues in the LDP’s campaign platform.
Polls by Japanese media have noted a rebound in Abe’s approval ratings, with the latest Yomiuri Shimbun survey showing a jump to 50 percent approval, while 39 percent of respondents did not support him.
Abe’s response to the DPRK nuclear test, including phone calls and consultations with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, received favorable attention in Japan.
Abe’s approval rating also rose 8 percentage points in September 2016 when the DPRK carried out its fifth nuclear test.
The New York Times said there are signs that the Japanese public’s devotion to pacifism and its attitude toward the Japanese military, known as the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), have begun to change, in part at Abe’s prompting.
Two years ago, Abe pushed through security laws that expand the SDF’s role and permit Japanese troops to participate in overseas combat missions.
The LDP’s task force for pushing through revision of the constitution has again begun to discuss how to write a new charter, with an eye on Article 9. Abe has argued for the addition of a new clause to Article 9 that specifies the existence of the SDF while upholding the article’s renunciation of war and ban on Japan maintaining the potential for war. Abe aims to amend the constitution by 2020.
A public opinion poll in April by Kyodo News showed that 49 percent of those surveyed believed that Article 9 needs to be updated, versus 47 percent who were opposed to any change. In December 2012, when Abe assumed office, 51 percent of the public opposed changes to Article 9, with 45 percent in favor of revisions.
“As a national security crisis is unfolding before our eyes, we need to win people’s understanding about related issues including how the national security legislation actually works,” said Koichi Hagiuda, an Abe confidant who currently serves as the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general.
The upcoming election will be a chance for the LDP to rally support for revision of the constitution.
But Japan’s opposition parties have warned Abe against creating a political vacuum by dissolving the lower house. Tensions with the DPRK, in their words, remain high due to its ballistic missile launches and nuclear test.
Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara called dissolution of the lower house “selfish” and without due regard for Japanese people’s lives and properties.
With the DPRK showing no signs of stopping its missile firings and nuclear tests, it is hard to see a strong “rationale” for the dissolution, which would leave the Diet’s lower house without members for days, The Asahi Shimbun’s editorial said.
Still, the issue of 17 Japanese nationals abducted by DPRK agents in the 1970s and 80s is a topic Abe has to face with sensitivity.
Family members of the Japanese abductees, as well as their supporters, urged the Japanese government on Sept 17 to make redoubled efforts to bring the victims home.
They are concerned that the abduction issue might be ignored, with the international community preoccupied with exerting more pressure on the DPRK to mend its ways.
The DPRK admitted 13 abductions, returned five Japanese and said the others had died.
Abe has repeatedly vowed to resolve the abduction issue, despite the lack of an action plan, while he is in office.
Dissolving the lower house is deemed the prime minister’s prerogative. Abe wants to take advantage of disarray in Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party, with many members leaving the party.
A snap general election would give politicians close to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike little time to establish a new party or for opposition parties to come up with a convincing campaign manifesto.
The LDP’s campaign agenda would also include economic and social security issues. The Abe administration aims to raise the consumption tax from the current 8 percent to 10 percent in October 2019 as planned.
Abe’s idea is to use part of the revenue from a 10 percent consumption tax hike — which was originally allocated for social security purposes — for child-rearing assistance.
Given the current political landscape, in which the LDP is not necessarily the public’s most favored choice and opposition parties offer no clear vision of governance — people in Japan could well feel disengaged and unmotivated to vote in a snap election.
The author is China Daily’s
bureau chief in Tokyo.