An unstable corner of Asia

On Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled, each by a single low-yield US atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have never again been used in combat.

Fifty-seven years after the shocks that ended World War II, Japan remains the most antinuclear-weapons nation on earth. But even there, a debate about the wisdom of Japan's remaining nonnuclear has begun to surface in the press. It is accompanied by official assurances that no change in Japan's nonnuclear policy is contemplated. But a private discussion in Japanese political circles has been under way for some time. Who can blame them?

In a world where Japan's neighbors, possibly including North Korea, have nuclear weapons, Japan has reason to wonder about its future. Adding grist to the mill was the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, which seemed to foresee a future in which the development and testing of new nuclear weapons by the United States was a serious option.

The bargain Japan accepted in buying into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear-weapons state was that the nuclear states would try to eliminate their nuclear weapons and prevent the further spread of these weapons. That hasn't happened. Instead, India and Pakistan have become de facto nuclear-weapons states and the Bush administration, under the pressure of the war on terrorism, has dismantled the sanctions on those two countries. Talks with North Korea are stalled and the future of the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea's nuclear-weapons program is in doubt.

The US is trying to solve too many problems in a piecemeal fashion. Instead of dealing with all the moving parts as separate issues, we should see Japan, China, Russia, and Korea as part of an interacting system of states that needs to be dealt with as a whole.

For years, the need for a multilateral Northeast Asian security mechanism has been apparent. The idea never attracted enough sustained political energy at the top of any government, including America's, to make the idea work. Instead, the US and Asia played at it on the fringes of existing Asian-Pacific forums, which were mainly focused on economic issues.

Russia and China have done well to establish a security forum that includes Central Asian states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization should be replicated in Northeast Asia and the Bush administration should take the lead in creating it. A lot of spadework already has been done.

An initiative sponsored by the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech sparked an unofficial dialogue that has been under way for almost a decade on the contents of a limited nuclear-weapons-free zone for Northeast Asia. Experts from China, Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, Russia, and the United States have been involved. Their work is known to all the governments concerned. This group is meeting now in Mongolia to review a model treaty that would establish an agency for daily interaction on security issues that have regional implications.

A solution looking for a problem? Hardly. The failure to regulate nuclear-weapons developments has been a prime cause of instability in Northeast Asia. Isolated measures are not up to the task.

A nuclear restraint regime to which each nation makes some contribution will be needed. Japan should reaffirm it will not acquire nuclear weapons. The two Koreas should implement the verification requirements of their 1991 accord to make all of Korea nuclear-free. The parties to the 1994 Agreed Framework should implement it in full.

Russia, China, and the US should commit not to deploy short-range nuclear-armed missiles in the region. Russia and the US should fulfill their promise "to carry out strategic offensive reductions to the lowest possible levels consistent with their national security requirement." All should cooperate in reducing the threat of ballistic missiles.

It's time to stop playing catch-up. We believe the Bush administration would find support in Northeast Asia for a regional security forum. The continuing crisis in South Asia should be an incentive. It is a foretaste of what could happen elsewhere in Asia.

• John Endicott, former director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Ambassador James Goodby is affiliated with the Center for Northeast Asian Security Studies at the Brookings Institution.

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