Reverberations of the DPRK’s 25 May nuclear test and its subsequent actions, including the repeated brinkmanship rhetoric, are now being felt throughout the Northeast Asian region, no less here in Japan, only a few thousand kilometres away. Concerns are now arising about the reaction in Japan, known for its hardline stance toward the DPRK. Indeed, calls for military solutions are being raised within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the Diet on Tuesday passed a resolution calling for strengthened sanctions.

Yet Japan itself poses an obstacle to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, including the progress of the Six-Party Talks. This behaviour can be understood as coming from three deeply rooted problems.

First is the long-held political reluctance to face and resolve historical issues resulting from Japan’s past of invasion and colonial rule; second is the extremely harsh public sentiment within Japan in regards to North Korea, largely resulting from the unresolved issue of the abduction of Japanese citizens in 1970s-1980s. These two issues lead to strong domestic resistance against the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The third problem is Japan’s reliance on the US for its security, muffling calls for a calm response. For example, in the case of the April rocket launch, despite the DPRK’s prior notice and emphasis that the launch was carrying a satellite, Japanese politicians and media fixated on the short-sighted argument for interception, that is, on military solutions.

What is less known are the ongoing Japanese civil society initiatives proposing alternatives with a focus on dialogue and mutual confidence building.

Public support for reconciliation is strengthening, with increased grassroots exchange between Japan and both Koreas. For example, collaborative Japanese-South Korean citizen-led humanitarian aid to the DPRK, art and cultural exchanges, and the annual “Peace and Green Boat” jointly organised by the South Korean Green Foundation and Japan’s Peace Boat, a study tour with participation of three hundred citizens from each South Korea and Japan to strengthen peaceful relations within the region.

Support of the neo-nationalist movement for history education revision is also losing momentum and civil society groups and academia of Japan, South Korea and China are coordinating an ongoing process of developing trilateral common history textbooks.

While the abductions remain a highly emotional issue for the Japanese public, voices calling for dialogue with North Korea can now be heard even amongst the families of the abducted — showing that the victims themselves are aware of the fact that the “sanctions only” policy of past years has proved to be a failure.

The global momentum towards nuclear disarmament, symbolized by the inauguration of President Obama and his Prague speech for a nuclear-weapon free world, is providing an opportunity to open debate on Japan’s contradictory security policy.

Civil society cooperation in Northeast Asia is lively, with an ongoing debate on security and disarmament issues through for example the Northeast Asian network of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), which coordinates civil society Six-Party Talks parallel to government initiatives and advocates the creation of a regional peace mechanism as a step towards easing the tensions of Northeast Asia and melting the remaining Cold War structures.

The role of Australia is also potentially very significant, partly because of commonalities between Japan and Australia as important US allies within the Asia Pacific, who are both vocal on the need for nuclear disarmament yet base their security on US nuclear deterrence.

An important initiative is the Japan-Australia led International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), co-chaired by Gareth Evans and former Japanese Foreign Minister Kawaguchi Yoriko; a process complemented by parallel Japan-Australia civil society collaboration.

Earlier this week, Gareth Evans visited Tokyo on the invitation of Japanese NGOs, for meetings with Diet members, civil society and the media. He was frank to point out the Japanese double standard, clearly calling for a re-examination of this contradictory policy in discussion with both civil society and policy makers. Also significant was Mr Evans’ emphasis of a calm, open-door response to North Korea. Such Australian contributions can potentially influence a shift in Japan’s policy, thus eventually changing the political stalemate looming over Northeast Asia.

Rather than introducing stronger sanctions, which proved so ineffective in the past, the situation calls for a return to the Six-Party Talks, steps towards the creation of a Northeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone and ensuring dialogue channels are open. Australian and Japanese cooperation, on both the governmental and civil society levels, can contribute to easing Cold War tensions and establishing a new peaceful order for Northeast Asia.