The security debate triggered by North Korea's Oct. 9 declared nuclear test just keeps churning in Tokyo's political nerve center.
The long taboo of discussing going nuclear was most recently broached by Shoichi Nakagawa, LDP policy chief. Nakagawa said the public should debate whether Japan should develop atomic weapons in response to the North Korean threat.
Nakagawa’s remark made headlines around the world and set off an intense barrage of media coverage that has lasted over a month.
Government officials, however, remain steadfast in upholding the nation’s nonnuclear policy.
“There should be various opinions in a democracy. But the people who harbor the opinion that (we should develop nuclear arms) haven’t formed a majority,” Nukaga said.
Government sources said Tokyo has secretly conducted theoretical studies on going nuclear at least twice — in the mid-1960s and mid-1990s — but reached the same conclusion both times: Nuclear weapons won’t provide any benefit to security.
The first study was conducted after China’s first nuclear test in 1964; the second was done in 1995, when Japan agreed to an indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
A senior Defense Agency official said there were mainly three reasons in the 1995 study for not going nuclear: It could lead to the collapse of the NPT; it would damage the Japanese-U.S. security alliance; and it could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia — a nightmare for the entire region and the world.
“If we develop nuclear weapons, that would be tantamount to saying we don’t trust the nuclear deterrence (of) the United States,” said former Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba, who now advises the LDP. “We thereby could make enemies out of both the U.S. and China, which is the scariest (scenario).”
In addition, Ishiba said Japan, which has few fossil fuel resources, is dependent on nuclear power for much of its electricity — about 30 percent now, according to the Natural Resources and Energy Agency.
If Japan quits the NPT, that power would evaporate because all the uranium imports and other supplies needed from overseas would be cut off, Ishiba said.
Those pushing for nuclear arms may simply be ignorant about the political basics of the situation, Ishiba said.
But Terumasa Nakanishi, a professor of international politics at Kyoto University, said it’s possible nuclear advocates are being motivated by different reasons.
For Japan, mentioning the nuclear option could be “the only diplomatic chip” strong enough to prompt China and the United States to take the North Korean threat more seriously, Nakanishi said.
“We need to keep applying pressure on the North. The only chip we have is to say we will be determined (to go nuclear) if the United States and China won’t take this issue seriously,” Nakanishi said.
Another security issue in the spotlight is the long-standing ban on what the United Nations Charter terms the right to “collective self-defense” — including coming to the aid of an ally under attack.
The ban on collective defense is considered a key restraint on the Self-Defense Forces. The SDF mission is strictly limited by the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to only defending Japanese territory.
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki created a stir Monday when he hinted the government may alter its interpretation of these restraints to let Japan shoot down any North Korean ballistic missile launched toward U.S. territory.
In December 2003, when the government gave the go-ahead to move forward on deploying a missile shield with the U.S., then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda issued a statement that the project “is aimed solely at defending our country.”
Although Defense Agency officials questioned Shiozaki’s remarks, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, long known as an advocate of constitutional revision, immediately defended him.
“(The government) is obliged to defend the lives and property of the people. We have to study (the issue) to ensure national security efficiently,” Abe told reporters Tuesday.
Some observers even speculate that Abe’s remark may have been a politically motivated gesture to push for his goal of constitutional revision by focusing public attention on the issue, instead of actually considering the missile shield.
According to the Defense Agency, part of the system Japan is introducing, the sea-based Standard-3 interceptor missile, can’t shoot down missiles aimed at U.S. territory because they would be flying much higher in space than those on the way to Japanese territory.
“Our system won’t be capable of shooting down missiles at such a high altitude. It’s impossible,” a key senior Defense Agency official said on condition of anonymity.
However, some politicians argue that Japan needs to do its homework before changing the Constitution’s interpretation of the right to collective defense.
Ishiba, who heads the LDP’s special defense policy committee, said Japan should first win trust in Asia by doing some serious soul-searching over its wartime aggression.
Japan also needs to communicate its vision of what role it intends to play in Asia, the Japanese-U.S. security alliance and in the U.N. — something Abe has failed to do comprehensively, Ishiba said.
“I don’t know if (Abe) has such a vision or not, because he hasn’t said anything about it so far,” he said.