Nuclear Asia

March 30, 2003

A NEW MYSTERY novel set in Japan describes the island shedding its post-World War II pacifism and developing its own nuclear arms.

The book is titled Project Kaisei, and Kaisei can mean "amendment" - a suspected reference to amending the nation's constitutional commitment to nonaggression.

The premise is hardly science fiction. With North Korea threatening to go nuclear - and the United States so far not mustering sufficient regional unity to forestall that - long-simmering pressures within Japan for strengthening its military are gaining currency. And that gives even more urgency to the need for the United States, China and South Korea to set aside their differences and align, along with Japan, to negotiate the North's disarmament.

From a small Pacific island Friday, Japan took a big step toward a more aggressive military posture by launching two spy satellites that will allow it to keep an eye on any threats, particularly from North Korea. Though technically a violation of a 30-year-old vow not to use space for military purposes, the launch has been in the works for more than four years - ever since the North fired one of its Taepodong ballistic missiles into the Pacific over Japan and the United States took a while to share its intelligence on it with the Japanese.

As evidenced by the new spy satellites - plus talk of the need to acquire missiles to hit North Korean targets - there's growing fear in Japan of the North's aggressive moves in its standoff with the United States. East Asian tensions these days are such that the unthinkable - Japan itself going nuclear - is no longer unthinkable. And for that matter, perhaps Taiwan as well.

That frightful chain of events could follow from the North succeeding in its nuclear ambitions, and it would mark a profound shift in Asia's dynamics of the last half-century. As challenging as that would be for U.S. interests, it could be a nightmare for China - whose immediate neighborhood would be thick with other members of the nuclear club: India, Pakistan, Russia and then North Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

So far, much to U.S. frustration, China - the North's primary food and energy source - has been unwilling or unable to pressure it into multilateral negotiations. At the same time, Chinese officials reportedly are growing increasingly impatient with the North's military provocations. And according to a report last week by Sun correspondent Gady A. Epstein, China recently sent a tough signal to the North by shutting off a major oil pipeline for three days.

China is key to containing and resolving the North Korean crisis. As scary as the prospect of Japan militarizing may be, the launch of its spy satellites Friday should be even more encouragement for the Chinese to work with the United States in stepping up pressure on the North.

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