North Korean threats and bluster could help Japan’s prime minister win an election

Key Points
  • The ongoing North Korea crisis could boost Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's chances at next month's snap elections
  • Abe's ratings have improved since he advocated a hard-line approach on Pyongyang

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may strategically use North Korea's interminable nuclear drama to boost his chances at next month's lower house elections.

Abe's popularity plummeted between April and July amid a series of political scandals, but has recently rebounded as he advocated for more pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Approval levels for Abe's cabinet hit 50 percent this month, up from 36 percent in July, according to nationwide surveys by The Yomiuri Shimbun.

"Abe's tough rhetoric at the U.N. General Assembly and his discussions on North Korea with [President] Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in further bolstered his image as a resolute defender of Japanese national security, which will play well with voters when they go to the polls next month," Scott Seaman, senior Asia analyst at political consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in a note on Monday.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference with President Donald Trump at the White House on February 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

The ratings recovery is a key reason why Abe will dissolve parliament's lower house on Thursday for a snap election slated for Oct. 22. A lower house vote must be held by December 2018. In expediting the process, the 63-year-old is likely looking to benefit from current traction as well as divert attention from recent scandals and cement his leadership before a new political party formed by Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike makes inroads, experts widely agreed.

"The government has really hyped the North Korea threat — they've been stopping trains, blasting alarms and sending text messages every time a missile goes over Japanese airspace — so I do think it's fair to say that they've been taking maximum advantage of the North Korea situation for political advantage," said Phillip Lipscy, assistant professor at Stanford University.

That may be "a cynical ploy, but it may very well be one that works," he added.

Japan's Abe saw the time as right to roll political dice

Abe has explained that he called the snap election to obtain a mandate to redirect revenue from a proposed consumption tax hike in 2019.

"More cynically, it helps Abe capitalize on rising popularity in the wake of the North Korea crisis," echoed Rob Carnell, head of ING's Asia research.

Over the last month, Pyongyang has fired two ballistic missiles over the world's third-largest economy and recently hinted it may test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. Japan is the only country to have experienced atomic bombings and Abe's hard-line stance on the matter has resonated among citizens fearful of a nuclear warfare repeat.

And while a hefty chunk of the population still remain uncomfortable with Abe's nationalist tendencies, "even his detractors are hesitant to criticize him on defense and security issues" amid the current Korean Peninsula crisis, Seaman stated.

According to a Nikkei survey over the weekend, foreign affairs and national security were ranked as the second-most important issue for the election campaign, coming in below social security policies.