What’s behind Japanese nuclear talks?

Esen Usubaliev

November 2006

The information about boisterous discussions taking place in Japan around possibility to have nuclear weapons in the most minimal and necessary amount for self-defense started appearing in the world mass media more frequently. Raising of this issue has become even more actual after nuclear tests in North Korea on October 9, 2006. However, it is known that the issue has been also discussed before the events on Korean peninsula. Are there any reasonable preconditions for reconsideration of Japan’s nuclear-free status at present time?

The issue of changing Japan’s nuclear-free status was first discussed in Japanese Parliament in 1994, when Japanese Premier Tsutomu Hata highlighted that Japan possessed necessary potential needed for production of nuclear armament and if provided with political decision might establish, without large expenses, production of nuclear war-heads for the ballistic missiles produced in the country. Again in 1999, new attempts to discuss the nuclear issue in parliament were undertaken. The topic of nuclear weapons and possibility of its presence as Japan’s security guarantee had been regularly raised in analytic works of Japanese researchers. However, the initiatives of both representatives of political elite and scientific community in this sphere remained to stay in theory not leading to real changes in nuclear-free status of Japan.
After nuclear explosion in North Korea, Japan again raised the issue of whether it can feel safe having in immediate proximity the country, which had successfully tested nuclear explosives and possesses missile technologies, and moreover is known for its negative attitude towards Japan due to its military crimes during the period of occupation. Japanese political establishment cannot give definite answer so far. As it was before nuclear incident on Korean peninsula, now there are also a lot of “pros” and “cons” of such decision.
In October of 2006, Sioiti Nakagawa, the Chairman of Political Council of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, repeatedly expressed his opinion in favor of holding the discussion on whether Japan should have nuclear weapons. Nakagawa expressed his concern about country’s security and stated that possessing the nuclear weapons Japan would be more protected from the threat of nuclear attacks. It is worthy of highlighting that his point of view is also supported by Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso.
Discussions around nuclear weapons led to ambiguous reaction of Japanese community, though not very negative as it was in past – in 1960-80s speeches of any public figure related to possibility of reconsideration of the nuclear principles often resulted in ending of political career. In modern conditions taking into account community’s understanding of threat posed by nuclear North Korea it is difficult to imagine that speeches of ruling party’s member may negatively impact on his political future and party’s image, but LDP still tries to be delicate in discussing the issue of nuclear principles reconsideration. On November 14, the Government of Japan officially stated that theoretically nuclear armament of self-defense forces does not violate the Constitution, but Japan would insist on steadfastness of the nuclear-free policy.
Meanwhile, some portion of political parties (Communist Party, Social Democratic Party and Democratic Party) harshly criticized the position of the LDP Political Council Chairman, and the leader of the Communist Party even called upon dismissal of the Foreign Minister Taro Aso in case if he fails to stop the discussions around nuclear weapons.
Neighboring countries also expressed their concerns. In particular China, which traditionally is very sensitive in regard to any military changes in Japan, in quite restrained manner, although very clearly reacted to this issue. On November 15, 2006, the Press-Service of Chinese MFA stated that China is hoping for Japan’s responsible approach to preservation of stability in region, and to adherence of “three principles” of performance of obligations in frameworks of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, in spite of discussions around possibility of nuclear armament of Japanese self-defense forces, at present time there are no real preconditions for reconsideration of nuclear-free principles, as there were none of them in past.
It is known that use of nuclear weapons in purpose of strengthening the national security is limited mainly by political obligations of Japan arising from Japanese-American security regime and three nuclear-free principles declared by the Government in 1971: “not to possess, not to produce and not to import”. In fact the Constitution of 1947 does not prohibit possession of nuclear weapons while Japan’s renunciation from it had more practical and political character.
Such position of Japan in full measure met the realities of the Cold War, because it allowed the country to be under guaranteed US protection from nuclear attacks, while countries of the region were not concerned about lack of nuclear potential. At the same time, the nuclear-free status of Japan during long period of time had been forming a positive image in opinion of both neighboring countries and the entire world community. Keeping adherence to three principles Japan freely proposed other countries to renounce the nuclear weapons, called upon defusing the tension and upon joint efforts towards control over non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In conditions of Eastern Asia, the only world region, where high technological potential of development and production of nuclear weapons is combined with historically deep-rooted distrust of countries in regard to each other, in securing nuclear safety Japan had to make a choice between having its own nuclear weapons as restrainer of possible aggressor and undertaking efforts towards strengthening of regional non-proliferation regimes. And the choice to concentrate its efforts in strengthening of non-proliferation regimes has been quiet natural for Japan, which was under protection of “nuclear shield” of the USA.
The end of the Cold War undoubtedly has made corrections to perception of threats to Japan’s nuclear security, but has preserved understanding of necessity to keep adherence to nuclear-free status, because the end of the bipolar confrontation did not impact the security guarantees given by the USA, the change took place just in the source of such threats.
Modern situation in the region demonstrates that potential threats to Japan’s nuclear security may most likely be posed not by North Korea, as it is obvious that North Korea is not threatening anybody by its nuclear weapons. Japan is more concerned by radical changes in regional security, which may be caused by North-Korean nuclear tests and which may lead to future violation of the NPT by other countries. Such threat is real enough and in case if the world community fails to undertake decisive steps towards termination of the North-Korean nuclear program, the non-proliferation regime will be fully revised both in regional and world scale.
In this connection Japan’s task of top priority was the prompt recommencement of six-lateral negotiations on nuclear program of North Korea and putting maximal pressure on North-Korean regime by all possible means. It was not accidental that Japan has supported the harshest measures against North Korea and called upon recommencement of six-lateral negotiations on North Korea nuclear program, from which it withdrew in 2005 referring to security threat from the USA. Let us remind, that the participators of negotiations are North Korea, USA, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan.
Returning to discussion of nuclear weapons of Japan it should be mentioned that more important role belongs not to the prospective of creation of nuclear weapons, but to the goal of bringing this issue into the public. It is doubtful that one of the most influential LDP members Sioiti Nakagawa could have made such statements without prior approval of Party members and the Government. Perhaps, it was profitable for Japanese Government to represent his statements as a demarche of one of the political figures, expressing private opinion. But as practice and specificity of Japanese pragmatic policy show, there is no place for contingencies.
It is necessary to remind that any changes in military policy of Japan, and especially in regard to nuclear weapons issue, are sensitively perceived by China, which traditionally convicts Japan of militarism rebirth. It is also well-known that particularly China has special instruments of pressure on North Korea. Nuclear talks of Japan have become a signal for China saying that if no effective measures are undertaken in regard to North Korea, Japan may start serious discussion of nuclear armament of self-defense forces. Obviously, this is a purely theoretical opinion, but it may be quite real, taking into account that North Korea again announced about preparation of next nuclear tests, and Japan had to take quite extreme measures of influence.
On the other hand, Tokyo realized that they went too far in their reaction and hurried to state refutation, as it has become obvious that nuclear Japan may give another very good reason to North Korea for continuing its nuclear works. In this case it would be impossible to terminate the nuclear program.
Meanwhile, on the meeting in Beijing between representatives of North Korea, China and the USA in the end of October it was agreed to return to the negotiations “in the nearest future”, and in December it became known that North Korea has agreed to compromise provided that the USA cancels its financial sanctions and North Korea shall be given security guarantees.
At the same time it is quite possible that tension around preservation of NPT regime demonstrates much more important problem of modern international relations – desire to have own nuclear weapons, as practice shows, may become inevitable response of so-called “outcast countries” to the US policy and the only guarantee of their survival. Respectively, if the USA do not leave their practice of intervening into the domestic policy of the world countries and their hegemonism policy, it will be impossible to avoid violation of non-proliferation regime in other regions of the world.
As for the problem of nuclear weapons in Japan, it is important to highlight that as long as Japanese-American alliance exists there will be no real pre-conditions for creation of nuclear weapons. Undoubtedly, a lot will depend on how far North Korea may go in compromising during the negotiations, which promises to be long and difficult. But even in case of rebuttal of North Korea or excessive protraction of the negotiations, Japan is unlikely to seriously discuss the possibility of nuclear weapons creation, as it is obvious that deterioration of relations with China does not correspond to policy interests of Japan in the region.
Usubaliev E. E., PhD.

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