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Perspectives

May 26, 2009
Japan powerless to halt North Korea’s nuclear program

A map of North Korea the earthquake believed to have occurred as a result of the nuclear test. Photo: USGS

In the face of threat from North Korea’s nuclear program, Japan has seen growing calls to develop its own nuclear arsenal, despite a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons.

On Monday, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, which was promptly followed by two short-range missiles fired Tuesday afternoon.

Following the nuclear test, a leading member of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party said that Japan should bolster its defense network and consider pre-emptive strikes.

Tobias Harris is a graduate student in political science at MIT who worked for a member of the Democratic Party of Japan in the national legislature for two years. He writes at “Observing Japan” to discuss Japan’s response to North Korea’s recent actions and calls for the country to develop its own nuclear arsenal.

A study in powerlessness

With its second nuclear test in three years, North Korea continues to illustrate the limits of the power of the US, China, and the international community as a whole.

The underground test, conducted on Monday, appears to have been more successful than the October 2006 test — although it is unclear just how much of a success it was. As Geoffrey Forden wonders, this test could have been a failed test of a 20KT device or a successful test of a miniaturized 4KT device. Pyongyang will undoubtedly be glad to keep its neighbors guessing which is the case.

The response from Japan and other countries has been predictable. Prime Minister Aso Taro spoke of the gravity of this latest development for Japanese national security and stressed cooperation with the US and the international community at the UN Security Council. The House of Representatives moved swiftly to draft a resolution condemning North Korea that could pass as early as Tuesday. The LDP leadership called the test “outrageous.” Okada Katsuya, the new DPJ secretary-general, echoed the government’s sentiments.

Japanese conservatives used the test to advance their argument for a more robust Japanese security posture. Komori Yoshihisa said that the test illustrates the limits of the multilateral management of the North Korean problem and argued that Japan, doing whatever it needs to do defend itself, should reopen the debate on a nuclear deterrent. […] In other words, much like last month’s rocket launch, the responses of Japanese political actors to North Korea’s second nuclear test have followed wholly predictable patterns — and show just how powerless Japan is to stop or reverse North Korea’s nuclear program.

[…]The US is unquestionably capable of deterring a nuclear strike against Japan, but it takes compellent power over North Korea’s actions. Being unable to make a credible threat of regime change and visibly dependent on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang, Washington has little power other than its deterrent power. Japan, even with a nuclear arsenal of its own, would have even less power over North Korea. This is the unanswered question in the conservative response to every act of provocation by North Korea.

If the US is unable to guarantee Japanese security through its immense nuclear arsenal — again, the unstated (or occasionally stated) basis of the argument for a Japanese arsenal — how would a Japanese deterrent be any more powerful? I understand that they could argue that the problem isn’t US capabilities but US commitment, but I have yet to see a convincing demonstration that the US commitment to defend Japan from attack is flagging to the point that Japan would require its own nuclear weapons. I do not think the Japanese public is convinced either.

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