Allowing Nuclear Weapons in Japan Could Defuse North Korean Threat, Say Some Policy Makers
Allowing Nuclear Weapons in Japan Could Defuse North Korean Threat, Say Some Policy Makers

TOKYO—As Japan looks for a quick, resolute response to North Korea‘s growing missile threat, some defense policy makers in Tokyo say it may be time to reconsider non-nuclear pledges and invite U.S. nuclear weapons on to its soil.

Japan, the only country to suffer the nuclear attack, upholds three non-nuclear principles that commit it not to possess, manufacture or allow nuclear weapons on to its territory that were adopted five decades ago.

“Perhaps it’s time for our three principles to become two,” a senior defense policy maker told Reuters, suggesting nuclear weapons be allowed into Japan. He asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

North Korea, pursuing its weapons programs in defiance of international condemnation, fired an intermediate ballistic missile over Japan last week, prompting authorities to sound sirens and advise residents to take cover.

A missile is launched during a long and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated propaganda photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on Aug. 30, 2017. (KCNA/via REUTERS)

On Sunday, North Korea tested a nuclear device that had a yield estimated at ten times that of the atom bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in 1945.

Inviting U.S. nuclear weapons would be an attempt by Japan jolt China, North Korea‘s sole major ally, to do more to rein in its neighbor by showing there are consequences to North Korean provocations that threaten its neighbors and destabilize the region, the policy maker said.

A simple way to do this could be for a nuclear-armed U.S. submarine to operate from one of the U.S. Navy bases in Japan, he said, a move bound to infuriate China. Former Japanese defense minister Shigeru Ishiba stoked controversy on Wednesday by questioning whether Japan can expect protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella while maintaining its non-nuclear principles.

“Is it right that we don’t discuss this?” Ishiba asked in a television interview.

In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Tuscon (SSN 770) transits the East Sea Monday, July 26, 2010. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

In his election campaign last year, Donald Trump chided Japan and South Korea for not contributing enough to their defenses. On Tuesday, the president said he was ready to sell Seoul billions of dollars in weapons and scrap a limit on the size of warheads the Washington would supply.

“We don’t have any plan to begin discussing the three non-nuclear principles,” Japan Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters when asked to respond to Ishiba’s comment.

Yet, the growing North Korean threat could stifle some of the opposition, experts say.

“Just by raising this issue of nuclear principles, Japan will push the United States and China to act, and it is something that Beijing is not going to like,” said Takashi Kawakami, a security expert at Japan’s Takushoku University.

“It’s the medicine that China needs to make it act against North Korea.”

This April 15, 2017 picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 16, 2017 shows Korean People’s ballistic missiles being displayed through Kim Il-Sung square during a military parade in Pyongyang marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Allowing the U.S. military to deploy nuclear weapons on Japanese territory would pose a grave political risk for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, particularly amid an influence-peddling scandal that has hit his popularity ratings.

Any move toward relaxing the non-nuclear principles, however, is unlikely to lead to a home-made atomic bomb, despite Japan’s technical abilities, say experts.

“Tokyo has the civilian nuclear program, fissile materials and the weaponization technology necessary. It could probably develop a small arsenal of nuclear devices within a year if there was motivation to do so,” said Emily Chorley, a nuclear weapons expert at IHS Janes.

But doing so would force Japan to renege on its nonproliferation commitments and could severely damage Washington’s alliances and position of strength in Asia.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands following their joint press conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 10, 2017. (REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo)

 

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers fly from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, for a mission, with an escort of a pair of Japan Self-Defense Forces F-15 fighter jets and U.S. Marines’ F-35B fighter jets in the vicinity of Kyushu, Japan, in this photo released by Air Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan on Aug. 31, 2017. (Air Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/HANDOUT via REUTERS)

“This would signal that the Japanese no longer have confidence in U.S. extended deterrence,” said a former senior U.S. military commander who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

“That would essentially mean that they no longer have confidence in the alliance.”

By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo

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