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Editorial: Is tense North Korean situation really an election issue?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the North Korean situation, as well as social security issues, "difficulties the nation faces," and said he dissolved the House of Representatives for a snap general election to address such problems.

"In particular, because Japan faces such a situation, I'd like to seek a public mandate on the government's response to the North Korean issue," the prime minister said.

Recent military provocations by North Korea are totally unacceptable. In August and September, the secluded state launched missiles that flew over Japan, forcing the government to call on residents in some areas to evacuate. The North also went ahead with its sixth nuclear test in September, and claimed that the test, which it calls a "hydrogen bomb experiment," was successful.

These rising tensions have undoubtedly triggered apprehensions among people in Japan and the rest of the world.

Under such circumstances, one cannot help but wonder on which aspects of the government's policy toward North Korea the prime minister is seeking a public mandate.

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution imposing severe sanctions on Pyongyang, including restrictions on the supply of oil to the country.

Ruling and opposition parties in Japan have issued statements urging that the sanctions be fully implemented. There are no major differences between the ruling and opposition parties over strict countermeasures against North Korea.

However, subtle differences remain between political parties. Prime Minister Abe prioritizes pressure on North Korea, while the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) calls for calm diplomacy and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) places emphasis on dialogue.

Nevertheless, pressure and dialogue are complementary to each other. How to strike a balance between the two could be a point of contention during the election campaign, but it is not an either-or choice.

Pressure is a means to urge North Korea to sit at the negotiating table. Nevertheless, the prime minister appears to be making the North Korean issue a point of contention by ruling out dialogue with Pyongyang.

If the prime minister is to ask if the public supports the government's position on the issue, it could promote a split in public opinion.

Instead, Prime Minister Abe aims apparently to demonstrate his leadership ability by taking a tough stance toward the North Korean situation.

The Diet enacted security-related legislation two years ago under his leadership. The Abe administration reinterpreted the war-renouncing Constitution in a high-handed manner to open the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way, drawing protests from opposition parties and splitting public opinion on the issue.

The government claims that Japan has begun guarding U.S. military vessels on alert against North Korea's provocations under the security legislation, as a result of which the Japan-U.S. alliance has been strengthened. However, the government has not disclosed information on such missions and the public cannot evaluate the outcome of these activities.

Prime Minister Abe believes that if the ruling coalition wins the upcoming general election, he can freely implement security policy measures at his discretion on the grounds that he has gained public confidence.

There are opinions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that Japan should have the ability to attack its enemies' bases. The government interprets war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution as permitting Japan to possess such a capability on the grounds it is within the limits of self-defense. However, hurdles are quite high for the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to possess such an ability because it requires offensive equipment.

Furthermore, the prime minister appears to be aiming to take advantage of the tense North Korean situation for his long-cherished goal of revising the Constitution.

Prime Minister Abe has declared that he will aim to add a clause stipulating the existence of the SDF to Article 9. After the prime minister announced his intention to dissolve the lower house for a snap general election, he said, "The SDF is working hard amid such a situation in North Korea."

However, suspicions could arise that the prime minister may intend to expand the scope of SDF activities by amending Article 9 of the Constitution.

If the prime minister has dissolved the lower chamber and made Japan's response to the North Korean situation a key point of contention in a bid to achieve this goal, he would deserve criticism that he is taking advantage of the crisis for political purposes.

Prime Minister Abe says, "Elections, which are the basis for democracy, mustn't be affected by intimidation by North Korea."

However, as the prime minister decided to disband the lower chamber at his own discretion, it remains unclear why he mentioned "intimidation" by the North.

Diplomacy is part of the authority of the Cabinet. Since the prime minister calls the North Korean situation "difficulties the nation faces," he should promote diplomacy after winning multi-partisan consensus.

The prime minister should present to the public specific diplomatic measures to counter the threat posed by the North, which center on his government's policy of prioritizing pressure on the secluded state.

Strengthening pressure has a side-effect of further intensifying tensions. The exchange of provocations between Washington and Pyongyang is extremely aggressive. Under such circumstances, it is necessary to discuss how to prevent an accidental armed conflict from breaking out or how to ensure the pressure leads to dialogue among other matters.

Diplomatic and security policies need broad support from the public. Rather than highlighting differences, efforts to broaden common ground among members of the public are indispensable for promoting diplomatic policy.

The "difficulties the nation faces" means a crisis that threatens the survival of the country. Prime Minister Abe's use of this phrase could bring a sense of concern to the public as if war were imminent.

Amid the rising tensions over North Korea, the government should hold realistic debate rather than fueling public anxiety.

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