September 15, 2003

September 15, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Japan's Jitters

TOKYO--Like a tsunami rolling in from the Pacific, there is profound feeling here of vulnerability to the evil designs of North Korea's Kim Jong Il.

The issue is so explosive that last Thursday a bomb was found at the Tokyo home of the Japanese diplomat responsible for relations with Pyongyang.

Many Japanese believe their nation is the most likely target of North Korean aggression. They're convinced North Korea would never nuke their South Korean brethren. (They're probably right.) They realize that Pyongyang can't reliably reach the continental United States with its long-range missiles. (Although it is working on it.) And they don't see China or Russia as the likely targets.

That leaves Japan as the bull's-eye - a conclusion reinforced by North Korean missile tests over Japan in 1993 and 1998.

Sure, Japan has a defense treaty with America and prospers under a (nuclear) U.S. security umbrella. But Tokyo fears Washington could become too preoccupied, in Iraq or elsewhere, to address Asia's gathering storm.

Given the magnitude of U.S. interests in Asia, American inattentiveness is not likely. But Japan feels it must do something - without rousing cries of resurgent Japanese WW II militarism - to address its sinking feeling of isolation. The question is: What?

Japan should not go nuclear. With its strong scientific capability and fissile-material stocks (thanks to its peaceful nuclear-energy program), it could become a nuclear power virtually overnight.

But Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not forgotten: Many Japanese shudder at the thought of their nation joining the "Atomic Eight" (America, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel).

Yes, a nuclear Japan would scare the bejeezus out of the North Koreans and the Chinese, but it would rattle South Korea and other neighbors, too - perhaps triggering a regional nuclear arms race.

It would also likely weaken the bonds of trust in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Japan should feel confident in America's commitment to its security and maintain its three non-nuclear principles (never to possess, make or have nukes on Japanese soil.)

Furthermore, America (and much of the rest of the world) is telling Pyongyang and Tehran to keep their nuclear genies in the bottle. Smiling on Tokyo's pursuit of nukes would mock those nonproliferation efforts. (Not that hypocrisy is foreign to international affairs.)

On the other hand, Japan's defense minister recently reported that a North Korean missile could reach central Japan in as little as eight minutes. Armed with chemical or biological weapons, that missile could kill thousands. Hence, Tokyo's decision to acquire ballistic missile defenses (BMD).

Stirred by North Korea's belligerent bombast, the Japanese Defense Agency (Tokyo's Pentagon) has at last requested $1 billion for land-based Patriot and sea-based Aegis-class ship missile defense systems.

Both China and North Korea hate the idea of missile defense for Japan (or America, for that matter), but it's a fully justified, reasonable step in the modernization of Japan's Self-Defense Force. A confident Japan that shows that it will not bow to North Korean threats will bolster the prospects of a diplomatic solution with Pyongyang.

Japan often feels hamstrung by its (U.S.-drafted) peace constitution, which forswears war as an instrument of national policy. And its economic might hasn't had the hoped-for international influence, leaving the nation often feeling impotent.

But Japan can reduce its anxiety and improve its security. By passing on nukes and deploying BMD, Japan will improve its defense posture, stem an arms race and add to regional stability, all while remaining true to its modern political and foreign policy traditions.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Asia

Reprinted with permission of The New York Post