Japan's Long Fuse

President Bush hosts Japan's prime minister at his Texas ranch this month, and for good reason. Japan is both a potential victim and the source of a possible solution to the crisis with North Korea over its development of nuclear bombs.

And long after this crisis with North Korea is over, history may record that Japan was able to use it to break out of its postwar pacifism and strengthen its military posture.

Even during the crisis, a nation that well remembers Hiroshima and Nagasaki has openly talked of a possible need to possess nuclear weapons, and eventually rely less on the US nuclear umbrella.

The ranch summit, while serving as a show of gratitude for Japan's support in the Iraq war, will also focus on ways to keep a united diplomatic front against North Korea's wedge tactics. So far, however, the only progress in resolving the crisis has come from Chinese pressure on its albatross of an ally, North Korea. And it may be that China acted in order to prevent a military revival in Japan.

During the current crisis, some Japanese officials talked of a need to purchase cruise missiles and a preemptive strike if North Korea had plans to fire missiles at Japan. Such talk goes up against strong pacifist feelings among the Japanese, and a Constitution that forbids the use of force to settle international disputes.

But Pyongyang's 1998 test of a missile that flew over Japan has helped break the taboo of talking about military responses.

Japan now is working with the US to study a missile-defense system. It has its own launch rocket, and used it to send up spy satellites this year. And it sent ships to help support the US war in Afghanistan, its first dispatch of forces to assist a military action since World War II.

The former president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, warns: "If North Korea gets nuclear weapons, the stance of Japan and our country towards nuclear weapons would change." Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona says the US should allow Japan to develop nuclear weapons.

Unless diplomacy works soon to stop North Korea's nuclear program, such talk may only increase, both in Japan and abroad. Mr. Bush must decide whether it is in American and Japanese interests to use this implied threat to China as a diplomatic tool.

A rebalancing of power in Asia could start in Crawford.

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