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FOCUS: Views mixed over Abe's election gamble amid N. Korea threat

Analysts offer mixed views on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo
Abe's abrupt dissolution of the House of Representatives for a
general election amid the growing threat from North Korea's nuclear
and ballistic missile programs.

Some criticize Abe for exploiting the crisis by calling the Oct.
22 election. He has claimed that the country needs the experience of
his almost five-year-old Liberal Democratic Party-led government to
deal with the situation.

But others say that Abe has merely made a strategic decision,
basing the timing on likely developments in diplomacy as the
international community attempts to dissuade North Korea from
continuing its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Abe chose the "best timing" for dissolving the lower house given
that the Chinese Communist Party will hold its congress in October
while U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to visit Japan in
November, according to Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki, executive vice president
of the Sojitz Research Institute.

On Monday, Abe said he wants to seek a mandate for his tough
stance against Pyongyang, pledging to put "maximum" pressure on North
Korea to force the country to change its behavior in tandem with the
United States and other nations.

"We must not bow to the threat of North Korea. By winning public
trust in the election, I will push powerful diplomacy," Abe said at a
press conference.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters Tuesday that voters
will deliver their verdict on "security arrangements based on the
Japan-U.S. alliance" that the LDP has championed since the end of
World War II.

Kono said the ruling bloc has enacted several laws to strengthen
defense cooperation between Tokyo and Washington and worked to deal
with the worsening security situation in East Asia, while opposition
parties have "taken stands against" them.

Whether Japan should seek to ensure its security under the
current system or in the manner envisioned by the opposition will be
a key issue in the upcoming election, Kono said.

On Sept. 15, Pyongyang test-fired a ballistic missile that flew
over northern Japan and came down in the Pacific Ocean, covering an
unprecedented distance that would have been enough to reach the U.S.
territory of Guam.

This was North Korea's first missile launch since its sixth
nuclear test -- its most powerful to date -- carried out on Sept. 3,
which it claimed was of a hydrogen bomb.

Pyongyang also test-fired in July two intercontinental ballistic
missiles believed capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and one in
late August that crossed Japan before landing in the northern Pacific
Ocean.

"The North's provocations have played in favor of Abe, who holds
a hard-line stance on the nuclear weapon-seeking country and wants a
stronger Japanese military," The Korea Times reported.

With approval ratings for his Cabinet rebounding after an August
reshuffle, "Abe is pushing for a power-seeking plan in domestic
politics," the South Korean daily said.

Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hosei
University in Tokyo, lambasted Abe's government, saying it has
"exaggerated the threat from North Korea and tried to fight the
election campaign while frightening the public."

Sojitz's Yoshizaki, on the other hand, says Abe's decision to
call an election in October to tighten his grip on power at home is
understandable, saying the North Korean crisis may remain in a lull
at least until the end of November.

"Even if the United States was to take the military option, it
would have to complete coordination with China, but China will stay
tied up until the end of the Communist Party's congress," scheduled
to start on Oct. 18 in Beijing, Yoshizaki said.

"The administration of President Trump could take concrete
action against North Korea after he visits Japan, South Korea and
China, and attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and
the East Asia summit in November," he said.

As the North Korean crisis "is set to become more serious after
December," Abe would "lose a good chance" to dissolve the lower
chamber if he had not done so in September, Yoshizaki added.

Speculation, meanwhile, is rife that Abe's LDP may struggle to
secure a majority in the election, as a new party with Tokyo Gov.
Yuriko Koike, a former TV anchorwoman who has capitalized on her
image as a reformer, at the helm was established in time for Abe's
Diet dissolution.

The new party, named Kibo no To (party of hope) has a potential
to become a significant force in the Diet if the "reform-minded
conservative party" wins votes from voters looking for an alternative
to Abe's right-leaning LDP.

But political commentator Masaaki Sugiura said the North Korean
crisis could eventually benefit the ruling camp.

Although Abe has "prepared thoroughly" for the possibility of
future provocations by North Korea with the United States and South
Korea, Koike "does not have clear security policy," he said.

Abe is "likely to thoroughly attack Koike over her lack of
engagement in security affairs" during the election campaign, which
could raise questions about her party's ability to implement
appropriate defense and foreign policy, Sugiura added. (Sept. 29)


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his office in Tokyo on Sept. 29, 2017, a day after Japan's House of Representatives was dissolved for a general election. (Kyodo)