Japan tiptoes on imposing North Korea sanctions

By SHIHOKO GOTO, UPI Senior Business Correspondent  |  Feb. 18, 2005 at 11:07 AM
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TOKYO, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- No decision has yet been made on whether to impose sanctions against North Korea or not, but some Japanese lawmakers are stepping up efforts to pressure Kim Jong Il's regime by cutting it off financially.

At first blush, even to debate whether Japan should impose economic sanctions against the hermit nation seems odd, given that Japan still has no officially diplomatic ties with the country. Moreover, there are no Japanese companies based in Pyongyang or elsewhere, and no blue-chip company does business with the Communist neighbor, at least publicly.

But Japan has actually grown to be one of Kim Jong-Il's biggest trading partners over the past few years, especially as the country has become even more withdrawn from the international community and global markets.

Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party released a report earlier this week that estimated that if Japan blocked all trade relations with North Korea, then it would subtract up to 7 percent of the country's overall GDP. The reported concluded that stopping Japanese imports of North Korean clams and clothing, which often come via China thereby officially labeled as non-Korean in Japanese markets, would be particularly damaging to Kim Jong-Il's regime.

That estimate was based on the assumption that North Korea's GDP over the past three years averaged $17 billion per annum. Meanwhile, Japan imported about $450 million worth of clams alone in 2003, while clothing imports from the country has been estimated at $430 million.

By imposing sanctions, "we will be cutting off the money that goes to the heart of the regime," said the LDP's secretary-general Shinzo Abe.

Certainly, sanctions would make the country suffer, as the LDP estimates that 10,000 people will lose their jobs in the garment industry alone if sanctions were to go ahead.

At the same time, Japan remains one of the biggest donors of humanitarian aid to the country.

Imposing economic sanctions will not prevent Japan from continuing its humanitarian assistance to the country, especially food aid, but it may well lead to a significant reduction in commitment to the nation, not to mention the fact that relations between Japan and North Korea will be badly hurt.

Nor only that, the move may actually prove to be politically unpopular even within Japan.

Japan is home to one of the biggest, if not the biggest, community of North Koreans and those with family members in North Korea based overseas. Moreover, many of those of Korean descent can trace their roots back to when the Japanese uprooted residents of the Korean peninsula as forced laborers to work all across Japan from 1910 to 1945. Some of their descendents have continued to live in Japan, but have kept their Korean nationality and remain gravely concerned about those living in the Communist country, if not the government itself.

For instance, economic sanctions would prevent them from repatriating money back to North Korean relatives, or at least reduce the amount of money they can send back home, which can currently be done through a number of regional Japanese banks.

Another concern by the Korean community in Japan is that sanctions could lead to a cutback in government support for Koreans living in Japan, such as reducing public subsidies to Korean schools.

But domestic concerns aren't the only reason why Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has repeatedly called for "careful consideration" of the possibility of imposing sanctions, even after the country declared it possesses nuclear weapons last week. On the diplomatic front, Koizumi has insisted that sanctions will have to have the approval of the other countries deeply involved with trying to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, namely the United States, China, Russia, and South Korea.

But none of the other four countries have said they too would be imposing sanctions, while some U.S. lawmakers pointed out that efforts to cripple Cuba's Fidel Castro over the decades through sanctions has only had a limited effect.

"For sanctions to be effective, all parties (of the six nations talks, except North Korea) need to be in agreement," said outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker.

At the same time, there is deep fear among Japanese voters that sanctions would only anger Kim Jong-Il, and he could retaliate by taking to military force. The fact that North Korea launched missiles over Japan four years ago remains all too vivid a memory for most people.

But as the debate over whether or not to impose sanctions continues, one of the biggest topics for discussion these days is about the upcoming World Cup qualifying match in Pyongyang.

North Korea played against Japan and lost last week, but the two teams will be playing against each other again June 8 for the final match to see which country will be representing Asia in the upcoming global tournament next year.

While North Korea has not yet made clear how many Japanese fans will be allowed in to watch the game in Pyongyang, one thing is clear: the fans will be bringing in much-needed cash into the country, but the Japanese government won't even consider preventing them from going to support its national team.

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