Wed, 30 Apr 2003

Crisis in North Korea may force Japan to build nuclear bomb

Dan Plesch, Senior Research Fellow, UK's Royal United Services Institute, Guardian News Service, London

After North Korea, Japan may be next to build the bomb. This possibility is an additional reason for Russia and China -- and, indeed, you and me -- to be worried about the knock-on effects of the Korean nuclear crisis.

The notion of a Japanese bomb seems extraordinary because people think of Japan as a nation than has been anti-nuclear since Hiroshima. Japan is a world leader in supporting the UN and it is also at the forefront of UN disarmament efforts, especially to control the spread of rifles and handguns in the developing world. But there has been a long-standing debate in Japan about whether to build the bomb, and today domestic and international pressures are edging Japan towards the nuclear option.

Pressures to take a stronger military stance have already resulted in Japan having the world's fourth largest defense spending and a larger navy than Britain's. In 2002 the issue of Japanese nuclear weapons was put on the public agenda by government officials. Last June, Yasuo Fukuda, the chief cabinet secretary, confided to Japanese reporters that "depending on the world situation, circumstances and public opinion could require Japan to possess nuclear weapons". Shinzo Abe, the deputy cabinet secretary, said later that it would be acceptable for Japan to develop small, strategic nuclear weapons. Later, officials backtracked, leaving speculation that they had committed a deliberate diplomatic faux pas designed to air the issue.

This was not the first time that Japanese officials had raised the question of developing nuclear weapons. Prime ministers Kishi (1957), Ohira (1979) and Nakasone (1984) all stated that their country's non-nuclear status could be changed and that defensive nuclear weapons were not prohibited by the constitution. In 1969 an official report recommended that Japan build nuclear weapons. However, the Japanese government kept to a non-nuclear policy, relying on two American policies. The U.S. undertook to use nuclear weapons to defend Japan, and at the same time committed itself to the pursuit of global non-proliferation and disarmament through the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Japan has resources to go nuclear if it chooses. Its nuclear power industry has created a stockpile of more than five tones of plutonium, enough for hundreds of weapons. They are at present under the safeguards arrangements of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in accordance with Japan's non-nuclear membership of the non- proliferation treaty. Japan also has its own rocket, the HA-2, which can lift a five-tone payload into earth orbit, effectively giving it a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile. Submarines and warplanes could also be adapted to a nuclear role.

For Japan to go nuclear, there would have to be a combination of internal and external influences to force a change of policy. A comparison can be made with India, which test-fired nuclear weapons in 1998 after years of warnings that it might do just that. By the late 1990s the collapse of global nuclear disarmament talks combined with a rise in Indian nationalism triggered India's decision, and Pakistan rapidly followed suit.

Comparable indicators for Japan should be sounding the alarm. The prospect of a Korean bomb -- whether in the north or south -- is one factor that Japanese analysts always mention as a trigger for their own decision. Now North Korea appears to have the bomb, this influence will become greater. Korean-Japanese relations have long been difficult, not least because of Japan's military occupation of Korea from 1905-1945.

The present Japanese government has already raised the nuclear issue and the prime minister has gone out of his way to associate himself with Japan's leaders in the second world war. He has on several occasions visited a shrine dedicated to the belief that Japan's leaders were wrongly accused of war crimes.

Until now, a combination of the U.S. nuclear guarantee and the UN- backed process of proliferation control has been enough to dissuade Japan from developing nuclear weapons. But today these arguments look far weaker. There will be almost no political or media attention on the UN non-proliferation treaty conference that opens today in Geneva. The "unequivocal" undertaking to abolish nuclear weapons given as recently as 2000 by the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia is now forgotten. In an international environment where the UN is no longer relevant and where there are already Indian, Israeli, Pakistani, North Korean and possibly Iranian nuclear weapons, a Japanese bomb may seem more "natural" for a country with the world's second largest economy.

The nature of Washington's nuclear guarantee has also changed. It was based on the idea of the deterrent -- what President Bush now describes as nuclear blackmail. Today, U.S. policy is to carry out political and, if necessary, military pre-emption against any threatening state. It is possible that the U.S. could carry out a military strike on North Korea that would be short, sharp and effective. But the risks of a larger war, even one involving China, cannot be discounted.

In today's Washington, even some of those who do not want to confront North Korea are by no means anti-nuclear. The influential Cato Institute recently published a report favoring a Japanese nuclear program. The author, Ted Galen Carpenter, wrote: "The U.S. does not need to press Tokyo and Seoul to go nuclear. It is sufficient if Washington informs the South Korean and Japanese governments that the U.S. would not object to their developing nuclear weapons."

Few, if any, Japanese policy-makers are enthusiastic about the nuclear option. However, the crisis with Korea may continue to push them in that direction. The Japanese nuclear card can certainly be used by Washington as a means to try to get Russia and China to persuade North Korea to give up its program, for a Japanese nuclear program would be very bad news for both countries. But it is by no means certain that Washington's hardline approach will either produce North Korean disarmament or resolve the issue through war. Even Donald Rumsfeld may recoil from the consequences of a large conventional war in Asia. The longer that North Korea's nuclear status is allowed to remain, the greater the pressures will become on all concerned, not least in Japan.

In the past, the UN offered a safety net for nations locked in crises. Today, that net has been set aside. There are no global or regional nuclear disarmament negotiations that could bring in the Koreans. A UN-brokered economic assistance and security package such as might have been negotiated by other U.S. presidents is not in George Bush's political playbook. So do not be surprised if, as happened with India, you wake up one day to the Japanese bomb.