Asia Time Online - Daily News
              Click Here
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

     Nov 2, 2006
Opportunity for Japan over North Korea
By Masako Toki and Mary Beth Nikitin

Editor's note: Three weeks after its nuclear test, North Korea said on Tuesday it was returning to six-party talks because Washington had agreed to discuss financial sanctions that Pyongyang says drove it from the negotiating table to start with. The talks also involve China, Japan, Russia, the US and South Korea.

The shock wave from North Korea's nuclear-weapon test of October 9 still reverberates, resulting in renewed debates among

Japan's high-ranking governmental officials over whether Japan should go nuclear itself.

Concern over the regional instability caused by North Korea's nuclear crisis has been felt all over the region and the entire world. In parallel with this concern, Japan's reaction, or overreaction, to the test is being watched by the international community as another potential aftershock to regional security.

Following on the heels of the missile tests in July, the nuclear test excited anti-North Korea sentiment among Japanese citizens. In addition to the security crisis, the Japanese public's resentment over the abduction of its citizens by North Korea has not abated. Given this background, the Japanese people have increasingly come to support harsher punitive actions against North Korea.

As a response to the nuclear test, the Japanese government imposed strong unilateral sanctions against North Korea that went even further than United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718. They ban all North Korean imports and stop ships from entering Japanese waters.

As expected, there have been some remarks from top-ranking officials encouraging the Japanese people to debate Japan's policy concerning nuclear weapons. However, given the robust US-Japan security arrangement and, moreover, Japan's nuclear allergy, there is no need to worry seriously about Japan going nuclear as an immediate response to the North Korea's nuclear test. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has since clearly reiterated that Japan will adhere to the three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan.

It is understandable that such debates may periodically arise in response to the changing regional and global security environment. Japan's occasional "nuclearization" debate has been a hot topic among security specialists and policymakers. Media interest in the pro-nuclear side of this debate has at times appeared to outweigh Japan's clearly stated no-nuclear-weapons policy and a largely anti-nuclear sentiment among the Japanese population.

It has also provided a disservice by heightening the perception internationally that Japan may be leaning in the direction of developing its own nuclear arsenal. Despite the controversy, Japan's core policy and its mentality remain irrevocably against going nuclear.

North Korea's nuclear test nevertheless has had an inevitable impact on Japan's security policy. Even though Japanese nuclear armament is out of the question, the ongoing debate over rewriting Article 9 - the constitutional renunciation of war - indicates a mood among its people favoring the right to collective defense and pushing the country toward becoming, or recapturing, its status as a so-called "normal nation".

Going nuclear is one thing and becoming a normal country is quite another. While many who are familiar with Japan's security policy and public opinion do not seriously consider nuclearization as an option, changing Article 9 is much more probable.

Japan's neighbors obviously would not like to see the country go nuclear or even change its constitution. As things stand today, neither will happen in the near future, but these debates may become more serious and realistic in response to regional developments.

Considering the serious security situation in the region, a "rethink" response from the Japanese government is understandable. North Korea's nuclear test definitely gives Japan the opportunity to consider seriously the country's future security policy, which also inevitably leads to debates over Japan's relationship with its neighbors.

In addition to bolstering defenses, policymakers should also consider how Japan can be more proactive and effective in helping solve the North Korean nuclear crisis and strengthening regional stability by using its soft power. As International Atomic Energy Agency director general Mohamed ElBaradei suggested recently, "Dialogue is an essential tool to change behavior. Without dialogue you cannot move."

This could be a good opportunity for Japan not only to underscore its unchanging commitment to nuclear disarmament and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but also to make efforts to facilitate dialogue among the relevant parties. This could start with improving Japan-China relations.

Prime Minister Abe's trip to China after a five-year gap in such visits and his statement to mitigate the soured relationship between the two countries were praiseworthy. Part of improving this crucial relationship is building trust and showing consistency, which means demonstrating to China that Japan does not want to live in a world that has more nuclear weapons in it, be they North Korean, Chinese or Japanese.

Many analysts have said the threat of Japan going nuclear is the main impetus for China taking a tougher stand on North Korean nuclear weapons, and finally getting serious about convincing Pyongyang to give them up. A nuclear-weapons capability will always remain a technical option for Japan, but politically it is important for regional stability that Japanese officials not confuse their neighbors by even implying that the bedrock of their non-nuclear security policy could change.

In this sense, Abe's frankness on Japan's adherence to the three non-nuclear principles should be given due credit as a clear expression of Japanese policy in the spirit of openness. Since he has been known for his hawkish inclinations and once stated that Japan's acquisition of a small and defensive nuclear arsenal would not contradict the Japanese constitution, some people may have entertained concerns lest their government would take more provocative stance against North Korea.

As opposed to the prime minister's unambiguous statement, a few officials occupying important cabinet posts have made remarks that sounded as if they were advocating Japan's going nuclear. Shoichi Nakagawa, the Liberal Democratic Party's policy chief, and Foreign Minister Taro Aso hinted at the advisability of making Japan a nuclear-weapons power. These remarks have spoiled Abe's clear statement and diluted Japan's moral authority on nuclear disarmament.

Although neither of them is officially advocating Japan's going nuclear, words of such influential cabinet members are very likely to send a wrong message to Japan's neighbors and the world. Symbolically, Japan occupies a unique place in the non-proliferation system, having advanced technologies that could be used to produce nuclear weapons but are strictly peaceful, as well as having been a victim of a nuclear attack.

They make Japan's role as a champion of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament even more important. At a time when confidence in the NPT is at an all-time low, the debate in Japan is magnified on the world stage. Besides the impact on the world's confidence in the non-proliferation regime, careless statements such as these may do unnecessary harm to Japan's relations with China or South Korea, countries that are extremely sensitive to Japan's military conduct. These statements by Japan's top ranking officials are inappropriate and unhelpful while Northeast Asia is tackling a nuclear crisis.

Instead of hinting at support for a debate on the nuclear option, the government of Japan should demonstrate even stronger adherence to the three non-nuclear principles. Why is there not much serious discussion about legislating the no-nuclear-weapons policy into Japanese law rather than leaving it as a "national policy" that is not legally binding?

Japan should demonstrate its unflinching commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and clearly show its dedication to the three non-nuclear principles domestically, and internationally reiterate its strong support for the NPT and for the six-party talks.

Japan needs to continue to be the responsible member of the nuclear-power club by sending a strong message that nuclear weapons should not be a pillar of national security, and should be more vocal in insisting on the inhumanity and immorality of nuclear weapons, and their common threat to all human beings. This will serve Japan's own security interests as well.

Masako Toki is research associate at the Center for Non-proliferation Studies in Monterey, California, and is a native of Kobe, Japan. Mary Beth Nikitin is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

(Copyright 2006 Center for Non-proliferation Studies.)

Rice gets a taste of tough love (Oct 27, '06)

Tokyo takes a bigger stick to Pyongyang (Sep 30, '06)

Japan's nuclear cop-out (Sep 15, '06)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110