Kimihiro Ishikane, Japan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, expressed frustration with the Security Council’s lack of consensus on North Korea’s unabating missile tests. Ishikane is the monthly rotating president of the Council in January, and he conveyed his country’s exasperation while presenting Japan’s program of work for the month to a hybrid media briefing at the UN in New York City on Jan. 2, 2023.
“The Security Council has not really been successful in speaking in one voice on the DPRK files — Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Ishikane said.
Since 2003, Japan has been part of six-party talks with North Korea, the United States, Russia, South Korea and China to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. With Pyongyang, the capital, carrying out six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017 and multiple long-range missile tests with Japan in sight, Tokyo is resolved to weakening its promise in Article 9 of its constitution to be a pacifist nation. This new commitment to security muscle will make Japan become the ninth-most militarized economy in the world and having the third-largest defense budget globally.
“It doesn’t mean we — Japan poses an offensive threat to neighboring countries, this is exclusively for defense,” Naoko Kumagai, Japan’s chair at the University for Peace and a professor at the Tokyo-based Aoyama Gakuin University, clarified to PassBlue.
Fielding questions from correspondents at the briefing, which was crowded with Japanese reporters, Ishikane said that his country had been transparent with its intentions militarily while remaining focused on promoting peace worldwide.
North Korea is not listed in Japan’s program of work, however, for January. The country’s foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, is scheduled to chair one open debate in the Council, on the “promotion and strengthening of the rule of law in the maintenance of international peace and security”; the other main debate is on “peacebuilding and sustaining peace: Investment in people to enhance resilience against complex challenges.” The UN deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed, is scheduled to brief the Council, among other speakers, at the latter gathering.
The first signature event is on Jan. 12, and the other on Jan. 26. (According to Reuters, Hayashi is in Washington on Jan. 11 for the 2023 US-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to visit the White House on Jan. 13.)
Detailing the goal of the first Council debate, which will occur as Russia’s war on Ukraine grinds on toward a yearlong anniversary, Ishikane said, “We hope this event would serve as an important reminder that we should pursue the rule of law and abandon the idea of the rule by force.”
Signature events by countries in the Council are often generic exercises, so journalists at the briefing tried unsuccessfully to pin the two debates on a specific country or group of countries. (Japan’s deputy permanent representative, Shino Mitsuko, repeatedly apologized to a meeting of civil society groups on Jan. 10 for being “vague” on detailing her country’s special debates for January.)
In the concept paper for the rule of law debate and in Ishikane’s briefing, the phrases “vulnerable nations” and “vulnerable countries” are used without reference to the nature of vulnerability.
“The issue of Afghanistan and Iran is big for Japan, but we have more impending threats about the issue of unilateral actions by China in the East and South China Sea,” Kumagai said, explaining that rule of law for Japan is about maintaining maritime stability in East Asia.
Without a permanent seat and the privileges that entails, Japan may find it difficult to get the Council to act on its dispute with China over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, administered by Japan. The concept paper mentions no country and refers to no situation.
“Deployment of armed personnel to territory which is beyond internationally recognized border or under the peaceful administration of another state to attempt to change the status quo on the ground for the acquisition of the territory and create fiat accomplice through coercion would amount to an attempt to acquire territory by force,” a paragraph in the paper reads, citing Article 2 of the 1970 declaration of the Rule of Law.
Reports say that China sent its coast guard into the Senkaku Islands in 2020, challenging Japan’s administration of the territory, purported to contain petroleum. Chinese maritime personnel have also harassed Filipino fishermen around the contested Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
The six-month renewal of the cross-border humanitarian aid channel from Türkiye into Syria was approved unanimously by the Council on Jan. 9, one day before its expiration. Ishikane said he considered it a “life and death” situation for the Syrians — mostly women and children — who are continuously desperate for this sustenance. Ireland and Norway, who led the agenda while they were elected members of the Council for the last two years, until Dec. 31, are widely credited for driving the recent approval, negotiating with Russia. As a permanent member of the Council and ally of Syria, Russia always threatens to vote against renewing the mandate, saying the aid unnecessarily bypasses the Syrian government. Although it is limited in scope and reach, the UN says that the assistance has helped sustain 4.1 million people in northwest Syria for the last eight years.
Reporters at the briefing also wanted to know the stance of both Japan and the Council on the increasingly inhumane restrictions being imposed on girls and women in Afghanistan; on the rhetoric of the new hard-line government in Israel against Palestine; and on the continued crackdown on protesters in Iran.
Ishikane said that Japan viewed Israel’s move to build more settlements in the occupied West Bank and occupied Jerusalem as illegal and that it still supported a two-state solution, as Europe and the United States also assert such backing. Afghanistan’s treatment of women and girls will be discussed in a private Council session on Jan. 13, led by the US and Albania. (Japan and the United Arab Emirates are now responsible for the Afghanistan agenda item in the Council.)
A civil society organization, Women’s Forum for Afghanistan, chaired by Margot Wallstrom, an ex-foreign minister of Sweden, sent a letter to Ishikane on Jan. 5, asking him to urge the 15-member Council to visit Kabul and compel discussions between the forum, which includes prominent Afghan women activists, and the Taliban. (The spokesperson for Ishikane suggested to PassBlue that the letter may come up in the Friday meeting, but first the Council must decide how it will approach the Taliban on the growing erasure of women’s rights. Moreover, a suicide bomber attack in Kabul on Jan. 11 may deter a Council visit soon.)
On Iran, the ambassador said that Japan had communicated its opposition to the treatment of protesters to the Iranian government.
“It is easy for the Security Council to speak with one voice on Afghanistan, since all P5 members are in agreement,” Kumagai said, referring to the permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. She said that agreement is not possible on Iran, given the relatively friendlier relationship that Russia and China have with the Islamic republic as opposed to the three other veto wielders’ dynamic with it. (Russia is being supplied Iranian-made drones in its war on Ukraine.)
Kumagai said that a trip by the Council to Afghanistan to meet the Taliban would not achieve much. “Even if it becomes possible for the Council to meet with the Taliban, I wonder if the Taliban’s stance will change,” she said. The most realistic outcome she envisions is a Council resolution condemning the regime’s actions.
As has become customary since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the ambassador, like other Council members, fielded questions on the war. One was about a proposal being negotiated by the Ukraine delegation at the UN with some allies that a special tribunal be set up to try Putin and other Russians for the crime of aggression. An open Council meeting on Ukraine is planned for Jan. 13.
“I am not aware of concrete steps on when we can start peace talks on the Ukrainian situation,” Ishikane said about a potential détente. “It is very sad.” Pressed on his disposition to the tribunal plan, he said he could not prejudge an outcome that is still an idea.
Update, Jan. 17: Our latest UN-Scripted podcast series, featuring Ishikane of Japan and Kumagai from the University of Peace and hosted by Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu Ogu, based in Lagos. Listen on SoundCloud and Patreon.
Japan’s ambassador to the UN: Kimihiro Ishikane, 65
Ambassador since: 2019
Languages: Japanese and English
Education: Bachelor of arts in law, University of Tokyo
His story, briefly: Ishikane has served in his country’s embassies in France, the United States and Canada. He has also headed Japan’s loans and aid division, in 2003 and 2007, respectively. Additionally, he has represented his country in other multilateral organizations besides the UN. In 2012, he was Japan’s ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). He was also director-general of the Asia and Oceanian Affairs Bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2009, he was deputy director-general of the latter. He joined the ministry three months after graduating from university. He is married to Kaoru Ishikane.
Prime Minister: Fumio Kishida
Minister of External Affairs: Hayashi Yoshimasa
Type of Government: bicameral parliamentary constitutional monarchy
Year Japan Joined the UN: 1956
Number of terms in the Security Council: 12, more than any elected member
Population (2021): 125,510,091
Per capita CO2 emission figures (in metric tons): 8.5 (2019); by comparison, US: 14.5 (2021)
Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.