Defensive Realism and Japan’s Approach toward Korean Reunification
Victor D. Cha
The role of Japan is one of the most critical, yet under-appreciated variables in the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Despite its importance, it remains unclear to many what strategic preferences Japan maintains regarding Korea and the U.S.-ROK alliance. This essay evaluates different approaches to understanding Japan's strategic thinking, and suggests an alternative framework which may be more accurate in predicting Japan's response to events on the Korean Peninsula. The argument is that a defensive realist approach-which holds that a state's survival is best attained by pursuing just enough power to achieve a balance where no one other power can threaten the system or a country's national security-better characterizes Japanese thinking and leads to the conclusions that Japan: 1) does not oppose unification of the peninsula; 2) actively seeks alignment with powers on the Korean peninsula as a hedge against China; 3) seeks to engage Korea in order to preempt Korea revanchist inclinations; and 4) seeks to reconstruct the "ideational" base of its relationship with Korea (i.e., history). Japan's defensive realist objectives in this regard are ensuring stability and favorable alterations to the status quo. Japan, in fact, would actively pursue unification outcomes that are in Japan's best interest, since opposing unification would defeat its long-term defensive objective of assuring non-adversarial relations with a united Korea.
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