SPEAKING FREELY Tokyo, Seoul hold 'ugly' nuclear option
By Tahir Mahmood Azad
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North Korea's nuclear weapons program is undermining regional stability in Northeast Asia, with the present crisis on the Korean Peninsula again prompting the neighboring states into seriously reconsidering their national security policies. This is particularly the case for Japan, against which North Korea has deployed, or
so it is widely believed, approximately 200 Nodong missiles.
The policy and strategic consequences of a sustained North Korean nuclear weapons program are immensely troublesome, both for future regional security and the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Resisting calls to abandon its nuclear weapons program, doubt has been cast on whether North Korea has any intention of coming back to the table to negotiate in good faith.
Regardless of nuclear weapons, the possibility of highly destructive military conflict on the Korean Peninsula remains very high. But with nuclear weapons added to the mix, the potential consequences of renewed conflict for Japan, South Korea, and the United States forces stationed there are incalculably greater.
North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons is aggravating security concerns and uncertainties in the region. Uncertainties could generate unpredictable developments that strategies of deterrence might not be able to contain, particularly in conditions of crisis. North Korea's principal adversaries - of which Japan is one - should therefore be expected to pursue countermeasures with the attendant danger of an arms race appearing in the region. While this has been a longstanding worry, the current crisis in the region has renewed debate in Japan over how to deal with North Korea.
Japan at present maintains a peaceful nuclear power program that generates high-grade plutonium, possesses a space launch capacity providing advanced ballistic missile capabilities, and has the technical expertise and materials to reorient these activities toward making sophisticated nuclear weapons.
In fact, despite the country being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an investigation by the National Security News Service has revealed that Japan's stealth nuclear weapons potential has been quietly abetted by "tens of billions of dollars worth of American tax-paid research that has allowed Japan to amass 70 tons of weapons grade plutonium since 1980".
While Japan has always supported the agenda of a world free of nuclear weapons, the regional security dynamics as they are now could persuade the Japanese leadership to change its mind in the near future and revoke Article 9 of its constitution that forbids the acquiring of nuclear weapons. Indeed, senior Japanese leaders have occasionally noted Japan's capacity - and right - to exercise this option, particularly in the context of a heightened sense of crisis over North Korea's activities.
A growing North Korean nuclear arsenal could also spur nuclear ambitions in South Korea and even Taiwan; governments in both Seoul and Taipei have in the past demonstrated nuclear ambitions (albeit their respective civil nuclear programs are less advanced than Japan's) that were ultimately restrained by the United States. It might be time to reassess whether nuclear weapons could in fact be an option to maintain an "ugly stability" in the region.
Domestic opinion in Japan is largely against going nuclear. Back in 2006, public opinion polls showed that even after North Korea's first nuclear test, about 80% of the Japanese population did not want their country to acquire nuclear weapons. In spite of this, the current political elites and administration do believe in a self-defense system.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, regarded as a right-wing nationalist, has called for a "strong Japan" and a "strong military". Although he has not openly supported the building of nuclear weapons, he has called for the restarting of Japan's nuclear industry, which was largely shut down after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
In the Sixth US-Japan Strategic Dialogue in Maui, Hawaii, on February 7-8, 2013, moreover, a Japanese representative identified that "North Korea is a primary near-term threat to Japan and the region - failure to check North Korea's capabilities could shift Japanese public opinion [toward] the desirability of developing indigenous power-projection capabilities and perhaps even nuclear weapons."
The head of Japan's Defense Agency has also threatened that Japan might be forced to start a nuclear weapons program if North Korea's efforts are not curtailed.
While Japan has up until now eschewed the nuclear option and maintained its respect for the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, if it decides to invest efforts into acquiring nuclear weapons it will do so in defiance of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that currently stands imperiled.
It would potentially face international sanctions for doing so, but it should be able to absorb the costs of these. In fact, in light of a hostile and erratic North Korea, Tokyo may deem it as a price worth paying.
Tahir M Azad is a PhD scholar at the Department of Strategic & Nuclear Studies, National Defence University Islamabad, Pakistan. He is a guest researcher at ISDP, Stockholm, Sweden. His areas of interest are nuclear security, nuclear terrorism, South Asian nuclear politics, and nuclear strategies.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.