Nuclear question still nags at Japan

With North Korea now armed with nuclear bombs, some of Japan's policymakers wonder if they need them, too.

In a new thread to the North Korean bomb saga, arguments over Japan's nuclear ambitions are becoming the focus as prominent politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) continue to raise the issue.

LDP Policy Research Council chairman Shoichi Nakagawa has repeatedly called for such a debate. His latest comments Sunday, urging a broad discussion of the option, followed statements last week that Japan's pacifist constitution doesn't preclude nuclear arms. Foreign Minister Taro Aso has also sparked anxiety in the opposition and LDP by pushing for debate on the topic.

Security experts say that nukes would be of little or no benefit to Tokyo – neither politically nor in military terms – and that the recent statements are mostly bluster. Yet the continuing, very public discussions underscore how regional security threats are deepening the anxiety among Japan's conservative political set.

"Alarmist views have been continually wrong in the past and they are wrong again now," says Shunji Taoka, a defense writer and former professor at Tsukuba University.

One strategic factor against Japan acquiring a nuclear arsenal is that the country's small size cancels the principle of mutual destruction, HE SAYS?. Japan's concentrated population centers would more than likely be wiped out after a first strike.

And, he adds, policymakers who champion going nuclear are also failing to consider another issue – those who have their finger on the button in Pyongyang are unlikely to hew to a rational approach.

"Nuclear deterrence will not work against an irrational or desperate opponent" and would be unlikely to prevent the desperate last acts of a North Korea on the brink of collapse, says Taoka.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quick to dismiss public conjecture that Japan may depart from its long-held opposition to nuclear weapons. But arguments on the matter continue to surface in political circles.

The issue of a potentially nuclear Japan is decades old. At least three prime ministers since the end of World War II have raised the issue of developing nuclear weapons. In 1969, an official report recommended developing them. Nevertheless, no further action has been taken.

Recently declassified documents show that after China's first successful atomic test in 1964, former Prime Minister Eisuke Sato apparently bluffed the US into extending a "nuclear umbrella" over Japan by overstating Tokyo's readiness to make a bomb. The "umbrella" guaranties US defense in the case of a nuclear attack, thereby precluding Japan from having to develop its own nuclear technology.

Recent comments echo the opinions of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and current opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa. A poll in 2003 showed that almost 1 in 5 lawmakers thought Japan should consider nuclear weapons capability if warranted by the regional political climate.

Japan has the material and the scientific know-how to make an atomic bomb. Its civilian nuclear industry has a growing surplus of reactor-grade plutonium, which can be converted to weapons-grade material with techniques that are likely to be well within Japanese capabilities. The time lag between a decision to go nuclear and the actual creation of a bomb would probably be measured in months, not years.

US security analysts appear divided on the matter. Brad Glosserman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum in Hawaii says that nuclear weapons would damage Japan's core security interests and destabilize Northeast Asia by potentially threatening the US-Japan alliance. Others say that a nuclear Japan could act as a counterbalance to North Korea's greater weapons capability.

With an Upper House election looming next year, Abe is likely to want to avoid angering Japan's generally pacifist and strongly antinuclear public.

Some victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still bear physical scars, and the moral implications of the US decision to use nuclear weapons haunt a generation. A recent Nippon Television poll showed that 80 percent of the population oppose the idea of Japan possessing nuclear weapons even if North Korea has them.

"There is no way that the public would condone a nuclear weapons program," says Michiko Kuga, a nonproliferation expert at the Japanese Defense Agency.

In order to acquire nuclear weapons, Japan would have to violate or withdraw from a number of international agreements, including the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Such a move would isolate Tokyo and ruin its chances for permanent membership in the UN Security Council, a long cherished goal.

Aside from undermining the continued extension of the US nuclear umbrella, Tokyo would certainly offend the sensibilities of its neighbors. North Korea already views Japan as a vassal of the US, and urged over the weekend that Tokyo be left out of the six-party talks on the grounds that the Abe administration are "political imbeciles," incapable of recognizing the North as a nuclear state.

With neighbors like these, Japan perhaps has good reason to discuss a broader range of military options. The next step may be a revision of the nation's Constitution, which prohibits the use of force. Abe wants to enact a new national charter within five years that has a more realistic approach to security matters.

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