Steve Herman interviews Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga about the impending anticipated North Korean nuclear test, Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea as well as the new Japanese administration’s goals for improving relations with Northeast Asia. The following is a transcript of their conversation.
In terms of relations with Japan's Northeast Asia neighbors, what is the primary goal of the Abe administration?
The Abe administration seeks to establish a strategic diplomacy, with a global vision, rather than working within bilateral frameworks. That's the basic stance. The strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region is ever-changing. And under those circumstances Japan wants cooperative relationships based on US-Japan relations, of course, with neighboring countries for global peace and stability.
In addition to being named Chief Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister has designated you as the "Minister in Charge of Strengthening National Security." Why was this new ministerial post designated and what is your objective holding that post?
I think the Prime Minister has a strong view on security issues and crisis management and wants them to be looked after in a comprehensive manner. From that standpoint he appointed me to that post, as the Chief Cabinet Secretary is supposed to be the primary coordinator. After dealing with what happened with the terrorist attack in Algeria recently, as the Chief Cabinet Secretary I have realized how important this [security] role is.
In regards to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands dispute with China, there is obvious concern in Tokyo about the increasing frequency of Chinese overflights and Chinese government maritime vessels in the area. There have been diplomatic protests by Japan and its JASDF fighters have scrambled in response. Yet the Chinese patrols continue. There is some concern that further incidents could result in some sort of exchange of shots. How concerned are you about this?
Historically, under international law, the Senkaku islands are our country’s sovereign territory and we are indeed governing them at present. We will assert our right to protect our territory and that is how we are working on the issue. On the other hand, Japan-China relations are very important for the Asia-Pacific region, as well as world peace and prosperity, so there shouldn’t be any kind of conflict between the two nations. We have to ease the tension with China through patient dialog.
As you are well aware, historical animosity towards Japan lingers in China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a reputation there as a "ultra right winger" or a "hawk" and that his Cabinet members include those who do not properly reflect on Japan's colonial past. What would you like to say to Chinese people about this?
After the last war (World War II), I think Japan has been contributing to Asia’s peace and prosperity. This is also a commonly held view of the Japanese people and it won’t change. The Japan-China relationship is one of the most vital bilateral relationships. As responsible countries in the Asia-Pacific region we would like to build a Japan-China strategic partnership that is mutually beneficial and try to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the region.
Turning to the Korean peninsula, some analysts contend that if Japan asserts its claim to Takeshima (Dokdo), which is under control of the Republic of Korea, it weakens Japan's stance vis-a-vis China with the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands? How do you respond to that comparison?
Between Japan and Korea, there are some difficult issues, as you mentioned, including Takeshima. But both nations share fundamental common values, such as liberal democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law. So with the cooperation of soon-to-be President Park, from a broad perspective, we would like to establish a future-minded relationship.
The government in North Korea, through state-controlled media, regularly casts Japan as a villain. In regards to improving the relationship between Pyongyang and Tokyo how would you explain to the North Korean people why the two countries cannot normalize relations?
Between Japan and North Korea there are problems such as the unresolved fate of those Japanese abducted [by North Korea] and the nuclear and missile issues.
Those are the reasons why there have been no diplomatic relations established with North Korea. At the same time, there is the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration that was signed by leaders of both countries and that is significant. Based on the Declaration, we are to work to solve the abductions issue, the nuclear and missile problems in a comprehensive manner, and to try to make an effort for the normalization of relations by settling the unfortunate past.
VOA: As you know, there are reports a third North Korean nuclear test may be imminent.
Suga: Foremost, I think North Korea has to stop conducting nuclear tests and missile launches and they have to reflect on what trouble they are causing. There was a resolution about their latest missile launch in the United Nations Security Council, right? So I think the international community is responding very harshly to North Korea. As for Japan, we have the abductions issue and are applying sanctions, too. But it would be difficult to be effective by ourselves. We need to cooperate with the international community, especially with those other nations that were parties to the previous six-nation talks [with North Korea] and by applying sanctions we put pressure on North Korea not to go ahead with further nuclear tests and missile launches. North Korea also has to make an effort to improve the relationship with Japan.
VOA: But rounds of sanctions do not appear to have dissuaded Pyongyang from further such tests.
Suga: It has to be done in close cooperation with the international community, otherwise, it won’t work.
VOA: And what else can and will Japan do if there is a third nuclear test?
Suga: As for Japan, we are currently making some preparations, including some involving the flow of people. We are preparing many things and we will do everything we can, within Japan. And of course, we will make our best effort to support the parties to the six-nation talks and the UN to put further sanctions on North Korea.
VOA: South Korea's government has warned North Korea of "grave consequences" if it conducts another nuclear test. There is some speculation that might include military action. How does the Japanese government react to that possibility?
Suga: The government's job is always to protect our people’s lives and assets, so we are doing the best we can in regards to that. We will deal with the worst case scenario the Japanese people might face. That is our stance.
VOA: In Washington and other capitals, there is obvious frustration with the revolving door of Japanese prime ministers and Cabinet members in recent years. Some in other governments argue that these frequent change have significantly weakened Japan's diplomacy. Do you agree? And what assurances can you give the international community that the second Abe administration will also not be short-lived?
Suga: In the past few years, Japanese prime ministers have changed within a year. The first Abe administration lasted about a year. However, in the recent election, the Liberal Democratic Party won with a sweeping victory. We maintain two-thirds of the Diet seats at the moment. We are working our hardest ahead of the Upper House election [later this year]. The economy is our priority and we are working on policies to improve the economy. Thus if we focus on improving the economy for the coming election I am confident that the Abe administration will last a long time.
Editors Note: Suga's responses have been translated from Japanese to English.