Why a nuclear Japan would not solve the North Korea threat

Why a nuclear Japan would not solve the North Korea threat

Amid escalating rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington, some believe a North Korea-US war is a ‘real possibility’. It has been suggested that Japan should support the US and stabilize the region by obtaining nuclear weapons. Does it make sense for Japan to abandon its pacifist stance and take this dramatic step?  GRI’s Managing Editor, Robyn Kelly-Meyrick, gives her view.

The risk of war between North Korea and Japan has grown more tangible: the regime’s threat in mid-September to “sink Japan into the sea by the nuclear bomb” was reinforced just a day later with the launch of a ballistic missile, which flew directly over Japan’s northern region, Hokkaido.

A pacifist power?

It may come as a surprise to some, but the nuclear option has already been given consideration as a defense strategy for Japan in the past.

Article 9 of Japan’s constitution came into effect in 1947 and prohibits waging a war to settle international disputes – a lesson learned from the devastating 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the US altered its demilitarization policy in the decades that followed however, Japan was urged to share the burden of maintaining its security and international peacekeeping.

Thus despite its pacifist constitution, Japan has increased its defense capability while remaining under the protection of the so-called American ‘nuclear umbrella’. Article 9, it was deemed, did not prohibit Japan from “maintaining her defense capability”. Indeed in 1978, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda went as far as to say that Article 9 “does not absolutely prohibit” Japan from having nuclear weapons, as long as they are “limited to the minimum necessary level”.

Hard questions

Not only Donald Trump, but even the previous administration’s VP Joe Biden, have implied that Japan can easily ‘go nuclear’. Part of the rationale for such a move from the US perspective is that Japanese development of nuclear weapons would free up American military resources. Apparent support for this stance in Washington has forced Japan to question US commitment to the ‘nuclear umbrella’.

Yet the question remains; would Japan, the only country to have suffered the direct consequences of nuclear warfare really strike a pre-emptive nuclear blow against North Korea, thereby risking a nuclear counter-attack against one of its major cities? An event like this would force the Japanese to re-live the crippling horrors of 1945. What would be the point, then, of reserving the option of a nuclear deterrent?

There is a strong moral argument to consider here. Many of Japan’s Hibakusha – the term used for the atomic bomb survivors – have devoted a lifetime to achieving a nuclear-free world, and deem such weapons incompatible with human life. Their activism over the decades has been regarded as a driving force behind Japan’s pacifism.

This may be changing slowly: a 2017 poll showed a 5% year-on-year drop in the number of Japanese people stating that their country should not acquire nuclear weapons, suggesting that current threats are having an impact. However, in absolute terms, it’s still 75% of the population that does not support nuclear weapons acquisition, and the same poll shows that most Japanese believe a resolution to the North Korea threat requires China to “take a more active role” and “direct dialogue between North Korea and the USA”.

The alternative: stronger defenses

As the North Korean missile crisis has intensified, Japan has begun to buttress its defenses. An additional surface-to-air missile defense system has been deployed to Hokkaido, the PAC-3. It  arrived at the base on September 19th, following North Korea’s second missile launch over the Northern peninsula.

When a rogue state like North Korea persists with a nuclear weapons testing program in spite of the advanced nuclear technology possessed by the US, and against UN sanctions, it seems unlikely that Japan acquiring a nuclear capability would alleviate tensions in the region. In fact, it could have the opposite effect, spurring South Korea onward with its own deterrent system, while unsettling other less friendly neighbors – China.

Under the circumstances, Japan is right to uphold a pacifist constitution, within which force is restricted even with re-interpretation, and it should focus its resources on the advancement of a strong defense system which does not rely on nuclear deterrents.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Robyn Kelly-Meyrick

Originally from Oxford, Robyn currently works as an Analyst at a financial technologies provider based in Amsterdam. She holds an MSc in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam, and a BA in International Relations from the University of Sussex. As an undergraduate she studied Japanese, and spent a term abroad at the International Christian University in Tokyo. Her studies have focused on East Asian politics, and particularly on economic and social development in Japan and China. Robyn has her own blog, Deliberately Untitled, which focuses on foreign affairs, society and culture.