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A survey of East Asia’s nuclear neighbourhood

05 January 2018

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Professor Fiona Yap is an Honorary Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy. Her main research interests are in policy and political economy in East and Southeast Asia.

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The democracies of East Asia are ratcheting up their military capabilities – and public opinion is going along for the ride, Fiona Yap writes in this chapter from Nuclear Asia, the new publication from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.

North Korea has aggressively accelerated its nuclear missile program and testing capabilities under Kim Jong-un, who assumed his position as leader in 2012. As CNN’s Joshua Berlinger reported on 20 October 2017, in the first 10 months of the year, the country launched 15 tests of short- and intermediate-range missiles, and one long-range intercontinental ballistic missile. In 2016, North Korea conducted some 15 missile-tests according to a CBS News report on 6 September 2017.

Clearly, there are no signs of de-escalation in North Korea’s program, despite global condemnation and United Nations sanctions imposed after these tests. Instead, the country seems determined to pursue Kim Jong-un’s “byungjin” policy, i.e. the dual pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons, pointed out in Charles Armstrong’s 2017 article, North Korea in 2016: Much more of the same, in the Asian Survey. Indeed, the number of launches and tests under Kim Jong-un’s reign so far has already exceeded the combined total under the previous two leaders, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.

Meanwhile, these firings, launches, and tests mean that North Korea’s immediate neighbours of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan remain in the grips of its nuclear threat. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is literally within the sights of the low-tech artillery stationed at the demilitarised zone. Japan is further off, but the Supreme Leader has seen fit to launch missiles over the country – not once but twice in 2017, on 29 August and 15 September – as warnings to this critical United States ally. Taiwan’s proximity and its relations with the US also puts it at elevated risk geographically, although North Korea has not directed its bellicosity towards the nation.

What are the responses of these neighbours to North Korea’s escalation and provocation? Do the domestic publics in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan consider North Korea’s nuclear missile program and threats to be an imminent danger or, at the least, a significant problem for their countries? Are these attitudes about North Korea changing over time, with the progression of North Korea’s program?

Understanding these public attitudes and responses provides critical understanding of the support for military proliferation or even nuclear development and deployment in these respective countries and may be a harbinger to similar developments in the broader region, including Australia and Southeast Asia. The following tracks how public responses and opinions in the three nations may undergird or undermine proliferation in these three territories.


For Japan, Article 9 of the Constitution that renounces war and “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” means the country will need to amend its constitution to provide for military capabilities to launch a first strike, even if that first strike is a deterrent strike against North Korea’s missile stations. Notwithstanding Article 9, Japan has in place a two layer anti-missile system that works to destroy missiles in mid-flight as well as in the final descent, and the country is looking to deploy the more sophisticated Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that is also capable of destroying short- and intermediate-range rockets in final descent.

An interesting question to ask: given Japan’s anti-missile system, why did it not shoot the missile flyovers from North Korea in August and September 2017, but instead, sounded the air raids to warn its people to take cover?

Some have speculated that it is to see the capability and reach of the North Korean missiles. Others have argued it is because the anti-missile system may not work, and it would be politically costly for the government with the domestic public, especially for any further military or missile development.

Public opinion surveys corroborate this. The Asian Barometer, which conducts successive waves of surveys for countries in East and Southeast Asia, shows that war was not considered the paramount problem by respondents in 2007 and 2011, when waves 2 and 3 were conducted in Japan. Instead, the economy and government service delivery were considered more important–virtually tied at 16.8 per cent and 18 per cent respectively–for respondents who named the most important problems facing the country in 2007.

In 2011, the economy became the overriding concern, at 40 per cent. War, more precisely, the prospects of international war, was reported as one of the most important problems facing Japan by only 7.5 per cent of respondents in 2007. That fell to two per cent in 2011.

Of course, these polling results are pre‑Kim Jong‑un. Is there reason to suspect the Japanese electorate may not be as sanguine about the prospects of international conflict since 2012? Some suggest so, given the results in the two recent elections: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were handed two successive electoral landslides, one in December 2014, and the most recent on 22 October 2017. In the two elections, Abe drummed the conservative line for the economy as well as the hard line against North Korea. Both elections saw the LDP and its coalition partner, the Komeito Party, with more than two-thirds of the 465-seat legislature. In 2014, the LDP and its partner controlled 325 seats in the House of Representatives. With the 2017 elections, the Prime Minister and the LDP won 284 seats while its coalition partner retained 29 seats.

The 2017 election results are even more notable because public approval of the Prime Minister had dropped below 40 per cent right before the elections, a 10-point fall from the previous quarter. Despite this, the LDP with its coalition partner won some 313 seats in the 465-seat legislature, as reported in the Nikkei Asian Review on 22 October 2017. Still, the survey results may provide a baseline for understanding public support for the constitutional amendment that would have to precede any military proliferation. Article 96 on amendments stipulate that amendments must have the concurrent support of two-thirds of both houses of Japan’s parliament, the Diet. Further, amendments must be ratified by a majority of the electoral turnout in a referendum. The LDP and its coalition partner control two-thirds in the House of Representatives. They also have 150 seats or about 62 per cent of the 242-seat House of Councillors. The LDP will need to win another 12 seats in the next upper house elections in 2019 to exceed the two-thirds requirement, which may not be a huge hurdle.

However, there may be a bigger challenge in getting the public ratification: in 2015, Abe’s security bills that expanded Japan’s role in self-defence met with huge protests, even after prolonged debate, before finally taking effect in 2016. The road ahead may not be all smooth.

South Korea

Much like Japan, the public in South Korea do not seem overly concerned with North Korea. Indeed, public opinion surveys compiled by the Asian Barometer show that South Korean respondents considered China as having most influence in Asia in 2011 and 2015 and that China’s influence is greater than that of the US. North Korea barely registered a blip in the survey in 2011.

It is interesting to note that even though China is viewed as wielding the most influence in Asia, South Koreans do not necessarily view it as having a more positive influence in Asia than other nations. How do South Koreans view China’s influence and how does that compare against the US?

The 2015 survey reports 75 per cent of the respondents see China as having a positive influence on South Korea. This is not a lot lower than the 86 per cent who see the US as having a positive influence on the country. These results may have something to do with the predominant concerns with the economy; notwithstanding, they do underline that, if push comes to shove, South Koreans are more inclined to side with the US.

Certainly in 2017 and probably thereafter, a China that is seemingly unable or unwilling to assert its influence over North Korea may well lead South Koreans to support military terms spearheaded by the US.

What do South Koreans perceive to be the most important problem in their country?

Responses to waves 3 and 4 of the Asian Barometer show that the economy is of foremost concern, followed by government services, crime, corruption and political instability. Conflict between the North and South does not even register as a blip in these surveys. That may partly explain the large-scale protests and opposition against the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in the country. While Japan is looking to install the THAAD anti-missile system, South Korea already has the THAAD system in place, deployed by the former President Park Geun-hye’s administration in July 2017 following a three year debate.

The large demonstrations that took place may suggest opposition to military enhancement, but that is not the case in South Korea. Indeed, in the budget discussions for 2017, the ruling and opposition parties achieved a rare agreement on the need to increase defence spending to counteract Pyongyang’s escalating threats. The public and the opposition parties, then, are not averse to improving military or defence capabilities per se. More on this:Why so mad about THAAD?

Rather, the protests against THAAD in South Korea should be seen in light of two issues: concerns among residents located at the deployment area over radiation contamination and seepage; and concerns over the Park administration’s opaqueness and failure to follow procedural rules over the government’s choices, including to clarify THAAD’s technical defence capability. The million-person strong demonstrations against the former President Park that led to her impeachment and subsequent removal from office, then, may pave the way to improve support for military enhancement with a new administration and greater political accountability.

In that regard, President Moon Jae-in’s administration may just do the trick: he has already promised to conduct a full-scale environmental assessment before committing to a permanent deployment of THAAD, which has allayed some of the concerns of residents of Seongju in North Gyeongsang Province, where THAAD is stationed. Also, the President is highly popular: approval ratings since he took office have remained high and exceeded 80 per cent in some instances, particularly following North Korea’s missile launches. That the recently elected president is also a strong advocate of a peaceful resolution, but not appeasement, may further smooth the way for military proliferation. Recent surveys conducted by Gallup Korea show higher public support for the THAAD deployment, even as the President himself has changed his stance: he objected to the THAAD installation while in the opposition party but moved to fully install the antimissile system in September 2017. South Korea, then, seems on track for stronger, better, and larger military capabilities.


Taiwan has fully supported UN sanctions against North Korea for its missile launches and tests, even though Taiwan is not a UN member due to China’s insistence it is a province of China rather than a separate country. China’s insistence may explain in part why North Korea has not targeted Taiwan, despite its belligerence to other allies of the US, including Australia: it may be deemed as a recognition of Taiwan.

What does the Taiwan public perceive as the most important problem in the nation?

Responses to waves 2, 3, and 4 of the Asian Barometer show that the economy is of foremost concern, with worries regarding democracy tied with concerns over corruption. In wave 2, concerns about food outranked the other problems; certainly, there have been recurring scandals over food safety in Taiwan.

Why it should shoot to prominence in 2006 for wave 2 – over 62 per cent of the respondents cited food as a major problem – but vanish after 2006 despite food scandals in 2011 and 2014 is unclear. Perhaps also interesting is that China does not register as a problem to Taiwan respondents.

It is no surprise that Taiwan maintains an ambivalent disquiet about China: in the 2014 wave 4 Asian Barometer surveys, almost 55 per cent of Taiwan respondents reported that China’s influence on Taiwan is negative. In comparison, only 26.6 per cent–about half the number for China–report the US as having a negative influence on Taiwan.

Taiwan announced in March 2017 its plans to raise its military spending to 3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to reporters Adela Lin and Ting Shi of Bloomberg News, that is an expected increase of 50 per cent of the nation’s defence spending, which has not seen such budgets since 2008. This announcement follows China’s plan to raise defence spending by 7 per cent. It is unlikely that Taiwan’s spending will be commensurate with China’s; the same Bloomberg report notes that China’s military spending is second only to the US. Still, for Taiwan, the boost underpins plans to develop the nation’s domestic defence industry; this will not only help the nation’s defence but also bodes well for raising its GDP.

Better, larger, stronger?

How are North Korea’s neighbours Japan, South Korea and Taiwan responding to the escalation of its nuclear missile program? Each of the countries have ratcheted up their military and defence capabilities.

Importantly, these are mostly driven or underpinned by the support of their respective citizenry. Public support bodes well for continued increases and enhancements to the military might of these countries in the direct path of North Korea’s bellicosity. In light of Kim Jong-un’s most recent threat to test a hydrogen bomb above ground, such preparations to meet the threat may even be considered responsible by the domestic and international communities.

This is a piece from Nuclear Asia, the new publication from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.

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