US and Japan unite against nuclear North Korea

President Obama met with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Feb. 22 to strengthen the countries’ long-standing alliance.

The relationship between the two nations has experienced some tension in recent years, but was rebuilt on Friday when both world leaders expressed opposition to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

“Since the naval diplomatic expedition to Japan led by Commodore Perry in the 1850s, the U.S. has shaped — in one way or another — the course of modern Japan,” said Hiroko Hirakawa, associate professor of foreign languages, via an email interview.

“This overwhelming U.S. presence has been more acutely felt in Japan since 1945, where the U.S.-authored constitution has been maintained with no subsequent amendments since its adoption in 1947,” Hirakawa continued.

The leaders discussed many things at the summit, including Japan’s participation in talks of an Asia-Pacific trade agreement, according to The New York Times. The conference was a continuation of Obama’s shift away from the Middle East toward the Pacific Rim, a region struggling against China’s growing economic clout.

“There are strategic reasons for Obama shifting focus from Europe and the Middle East,” said George Guo, professor of political science. “Their economies continue to struggle, while the average economic annual growth in East Asia from 1973 to 2003 was 8.5 percent.

“That is more than twice the global average of 3.5 percent and the East Asia’s share in the global economy has tripled in the last two decades, from 6 percent to almost 18 percent today,” Guo continued.

“Asia’s high-speed economy is propelling Asia in the direction of gravitational center of the 21st century. Obama realizes that we need a strong ally in Asia, and Japan offers that.”

Ken Gilmore, associate professor of political science and director of international studies, gave other reasons for the shift away from the Middle East towards Asia.

“The U.S. no longer gets its oil, primarily, from the Middle East,” Gilmore said in an email interview. “Our economic interests in Asia have grown tremendously in the past decade. At the same time, China’s interests have expanded with its economy.”

In addition to economic concerns about China, the other main topic of Obama and Abe’s conversation was North Korea and its nuclear program, especially given its recent underground nuclear testing.

Both countries expressed concerns about the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader, and threatened strong reactions if North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons.

“The danger of North Korea having nuclear weapons depends on our assumption that Kim Jong-un is a whack job, and he could incinerate the whole damn peninsula,” said Robert Duncan, visiting assistant professor of political science. “Leaders of countries like North Korea and Iran may not give a damn about their people or their countries. They might just start World War III.”

Gilmore echoed Duncan’s assessment of the North Korean situation. “The new leader seems a bit unbalanced, at least from what you read in the Western press,” said Gilmore.  “Will North Korea develop the rocket technology to launch a strike on Japan or even the U.S.? What will China’s reaction be if they do?

“What if North Korea sells nuclear material to other states or even to terrorists?” continued Gilmore.

Hirakawa offers a Japanese response to the threat of North Korea continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.

“In general terms, I would say that North Korea poses a similar danger as posed by any nation possessing nuke powers,” said Hirakawa. “In more specific terms, I am concerned if it could create a favorable atmosphere for hawkish factions in Japan to push their nationalistic agenda.”

The alliance with Japan offers many benefits to the U.S.: trade with the third-largest economy in the world, strategically important military bases and an economic foothold in the most significant region, according to several sources interviewed.

“Asia is complicated,” said Guo. “Between border disputes and nationalism, there’s always a crisis. How to deal with Asia is going to be a challenge for every president in the next fifty years.”