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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #110: October 9, 2003

Japan Going Nuclear to Counter North Korea

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

Reactions to North Korea's recent demand that Japan be removed from the six-party talks dealing with North Korea's nuclear program should come as an encouragement to Japanese policy makers. The United States has flat out rejected the DPRK demand, characterizing Japan as a key stakeholder without whom the talks would not proceed. According to political scientist Joseph Cheung, China will also support Japan's continued participation, primarily because it would be "ridiculous" to move on without Japan and second because China cannot afford to "lose face" by having the talks break down (Channel News Asia, 8 October 2003).

Despite these signs of support for continued dialogue, there is an alarming trend emerging in the media. Over the past month the number of news articles suggesting a 'nuclear Japan' have increased substantially. The writers of these items (inevitably all US based) suggest that arming Japan with nuclear missiles is a policy option.

In an article entitled "Washington's Continuing Illusions about North Korea's Nukes", the Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter promotes the idea of fostering a regional "nuclear balance" by allowing Japan and South Korea to build nuclear arsenals of their own to counter North Korea (Taipei Times, 6 October 2003). British newspaper, the Guardian, recently included Japan in a list of 25 countries that have sought to obtain nuclear weapons (19 September 2003). According to this article, Japan has the fissile material and the know-how to develop a nuclear weapon quickly. The only missing link is the political impetus to do so.

According to Robert Schroeder of the Baltimore Sun, an "ever-defiant and nuclear weapons seeking North Korea" combined with a "still-autocratic and paranoid China" and a rather disengaged U.S. government has given Japan a good enough reason to proceed ("Will the Japanese join the nuclear club?", 7 October 2003).

State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, stacked the stakes on 7 October when he insisted on Japanese participation in the multi-lateral talks by saying that, "Japan clearly must and will continue to be a participant." He went on to note that this was necessary, "in order to achieve a diplomatic solution to North Korea's nuclear programs." This was a veiled threat alluding to resolution by means other than dialogue.

In such a scenario, many Western analysts see Japan going nuclear. For example, Schroeder doesn't think nuclear weapons would be far behind if diplomacy with North Korea failed. He imagines an "Asian-style mutual assured destruction" scenario. U.S. Senator John McCain has recently mentioned the option of arming Japan and an increasing number of politicians seem to support the idea.

However, such talk bewilders most Japanese. For a populous long opposed to nuclear weapons, that has been able to prosper in peace without them (albeit under the U.S. nuclear umbrella), and, strictly speaking, is constitutionally forbidden from possessing such an arsenal, it is difficult to understand how this strategic option would enhance both national and regional security/stability. Most Japanese media sources agree that a nuclear arms race in East Asia would not only be destabilizing but mad. If countries such as China and North Korea are on the alert towards the current capability level of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, just imagine the shock waves a nuclear Japan would create. Furthermore, apart from failing to address security needs, a resort to arms would shut down cooperation on more important issues such as poverty, disease, transnational crime and economic development.

News articles highlighting the possibility of a nuclear Japan identify a number of Japanese politicians who seem to be in favor of the strategy. Included in the list are individuals such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and potentially Ichiro Ozawa of the Democratic Party. It is important, however, that the Japanese national will, which is overwhelmingly against nuclear arms despite the North Korean threat, rise up and communicate its position on this matter. The consequences of allowing the hawkish minority continue to propagate this notion confuses Japan's anti-nuclear stance and commitment to peace, development and security in East Asia.

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