The Japanese bomb

July 26, 1996|By Jonathan Power

TOKYO -- When Congress decided last month to reduce from $25 million to $15 million this year's American payment to buy off North Korea's nuclear-arms program, it recharged Japan's own vigorous ongoing debate. Does a potential North Korean nuclear threat alter Japan's traditional pacifist posture on nuclear arms and push it to develop a military establishment comparable to its economic power?

Japan, after all, has often been the subject of direct threats from North Korea. It falls within the range of the new North Korean No-dong 1 missile (and the No-dong 2 under development).

Stockpiling plutonium

Regular shipments of reprocessed nuclear fuel from Britain and France suggest that Japan may have decided to build up a stock of plutonium. But other signs point to a continued Japanese reliance on the United States. This passivity so irritated Joseph Nye, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs on his visit to Tokyo last summer, that he exclaimed, ''If I were located where Japan is, with a neighbor like North Korea that is developing ballistic missiles, . . . I would take theater missile defense more seriously.''

Senior Japanese policy makers appear to doubt the common American opinion that North Korea's missiles are sophisticated and powerful enough to carry nuclear weapons. Opinion is divided on whether North Korea had acquired enough plutonium to build a nuclear weapon.

What is of universal concern here is that North Korea is capable of using its missiles to attack Japan with high-explosive warheads or even chemical weapons. But again the Japanese are careful not to overstate their fears. Chemical weapons are inaccurate and require favorable environmental conditions. It's estimated that to have the impact of a Hiroshima-size bomb, North Korea would need 75 chemical-tipped missiles over the target area, well beyond the capabilities of the No-dong 2. But the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway last year by a religious cult demonstrated the ability of such weapons to produce serious panic.

Nuclear brinksmanship

Yet if Tokyo's opinion makers play down the military security threat for the short term, they appear to believe that the North Korean political threat is real. North Korea's nuclear brinksmanship (real or imagined) has sown doubts about the stability of the U.S. security system in Northeast Asia.

Thus Japan has willingly taken on its share of the bribe being paid to North Korea to stop its nuclear-bomb program in exchange for weapons-safe light-water nuclear power reactors. And it has strengthened its security links with the U.S.

At the same time it has undertaken some initiatives of its own, in particular encouraging China to use its influence in Pyongyang. The Chinese link is convenient. It helps Japan portray its closer military ties with Washington as not anti-Beijing but only anti-Pyongyang. But, of course, for Tokyo the real long-term worry is the growth of Chinese military might.

But for the moment, neither potential threats from North Korean or China nor the possible eventual waning of the U.S. strategic commitment has persuaded Tokyo to develop its own nuclear option. Japanese policy makers continue to rely on diplomatic, economic and conventional military options. The ability to develop a high-class nuclear arsenal -- and quickly -- remains available to Japan, however. No one should have any doubts about that.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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