Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election yesterday, hoping to capitalize on newfound support for his hardline stance on dealing with North Korea. His approval rating has skyrocketed to 50 percent, more than 20 points higher than his all-time low last July. The plebiscite is scheduled for October 22.
If successful, Abe’s re-election will help him consolidate power in the Liberal Democrat party and enact defense reform to help the nation address the North Korean threat. Included in that proposed reform is a revision of the nation’s post-World War II pacifist constitution, which limits its ability to defend against North Korea, and a desperately-needed $48 billion increase in the country’s missile defense network. Part of that budget would go toward purchasing U.S. systems, such as the Aegis Ashore interceptors or the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).
While Abe’s militaristic policy has enjoyed support among the Japanese people, especially given public concern over the two missiles North Korea has fired over the northern island of Hokkaido, it threatens to drive a further wedge between Japan and China. China has expressed its objection to Japanese acquisition of THAAD, because it is capable of monitoring Chinese military activity. After South Korea acquired THAAD systems, China retaliated by putting pressure on the country’s imports and tourism.
The summer slump in Abe’s approval rating was due in part to a series of corruption and bribery scandals within his cabinet. In March, news broke that a close friend of Abe’s received government backing for a veterinary college. A month earlier, Abe’s wife stepped down from an “honorary principal” position with the school, leading to public concern over bribery within the Liberal Democratic party. Then, in July, Japan’s defense minister resigned over allegations that she helped suppress defense documents that detailed Japanese activity in South Sudan.
But a survey from the Nikkei Asian Review over the weekend found that 44 percent support Abe’s party, and only eight percent each support the two opposition parties, the Democratic and a new party, known in English as the Party of Hope. Should Abe win, and secure the additional support for his reform efforts, it will go a long way toward expanding Japan’s options for addressing the North Korean threat.