The possibility of a nuclear-armed Japan has again been raised by the Trump administration, after U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson appeared to say in an interview ahead of his visit to Beijing that, with “all options on the table” regarding the North Korean threat, “circumstances could evolve” in terms of Tokyo acquiring atomic weapons.
In an interview Saturday with the lone reporter allowed to accompany him on his visits to Japan, South Korea and China, the top U.S. diplomat, who had previously dismissed the need for Tokyo and Seoul to acquire nuclear weapons, was asked if his views had shifted, given the surging tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“We say all options are on the table, but we cannot predict the future,” Tillerson replied. “So we do think it is important that everyone in the region has a clear understanding that circumstances could evolve to the point that for mutual deterrence reasons, we might have to consider that.”
Still, Tillerson said that there were “a lot of steps and a lot of distance between now and a time that we would have to make a decision like that.”
For now, he said, Washington’s policy of working to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program remained unchanged.
“A denuclearized Korean Peninsula negates any thought or need for Japan to have nuclear weapons,” Tillerson said during the interview with the conservative Independent Journal Review, his only remarks to the media outside of official events.
The administration of President Donald Trump has come under fire for proposing to slash the State Department’s budget by nearly a third, as well as for the slow pace of nominating top officials.
As of Friday, the Trump administration had yet to send a single nomination — aside from Tillerson — to the Senate for the department’s top posts.
Tillerson himself has also faced flack over his decision to block most American reporters from his first major trip to Asia, saying: “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.”
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said Tillerson’s remarks on Japan acquiring nuclear weapons appeared to be a shift in thinking.
“It strikes me as a new position,” Glaser said, noting that President George W. Bush had warned China, the Pyongyang’s biggest patron, that if the North developed nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea — and even Taiwan — might do the same.
Trump and Tillerson have vowed to make a clear break from the policy of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who pursued a policy of “strategic patience” to wait out the regime.
Still, other observers chalked Tillerson’s controversial remarks up to simple inexperience and heightened concerns over the new administration’s often-time contentious moves.
“This seems to be a combination of Tillerson’s inexperience, poor staff work and the extra scrutiny that goes with everything Team Trump says,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.
“I don’t think there is anything behind this,” he added. “It’s just smoke and mirrors to distract from the fact that they haven’t the slightest idea what to do.”
Van Jackson, an associate professor at the U.S. Defense Department’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said the secretary of state’s remarks highlighted the risk-fraught environment on the Korean Peninsula.
“Tillerson’s language does hint at some precedent-breaking possibilities,” Jackson said, adding that might be mostly due to “a lack of internal discipline” at the inexperienced Trump State Department, which he said had been “gutted.”
“But even if that’s true, there are only two realistic paths open to the United States in dealing with North Korean nukes: preventive strikes, or some form of tacit acknowledgement that North Korea is a nuclear state,” he said.
Jackson said both choices were fraught with risks, but if the U.S. accepted some level of North Korean nuclearization, there would be “second-order consequences.”
“Specifically, you have to accept a degree of mutual vulnerability with North Korea, akin to how we’ve done with Russia and China,” Jackson said. “If we did that, the regional military balance will put pressures on Japan and South Korea to eventually go nuclear as well.”
While he agreed with Tillerson that such a scenario remained far off, if it were to happen at all, Jackson did not rule the possibility out.
“If all options are on the table, one must surely be allies — not only the United States — achieving a state of mutual vulnerability with North Korea,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but right now our options are pretty thin.”
Experts say that Japan, with a significant stockpile of plutonium and technical know-how, could build an atomic arsenal relatively quickly. However, most are quick to point out the numerous obstacles to such a move, including the pacifist Constitution, widespread anti-nuclear sentiment and the nation’s so-called three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, developing or introducing nuclear weapons into the country.
Trump’s foreign policy approach, however, has left room for maneuvering on the issue.
While on the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump lambasted the financial contributions by Tokyo and Seoul for maintaining U.S. military bases in their countries, saying he might withdraw American forces unless the allies coughed up more money to retain them.
Trump also stoked concern when he suggested that he would be open to Japan and South Korea developing their own nuclear arsenals, asserting in a March interview with The New York Times that the U.S. “cannot be the policeman of the world.”
“Unfortunately, we have a nuclear world now,” Trump said. “Would I rather have North Korea have (nuclear weapons) with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case.”
While Trump has backed off many of these statements in the wake of meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, including one in which he said Washington was “100 percent” behind Tokyo after North Korea’s simultaneous launch of four missiles into waters near Japan this month, other remarks by the U.S. president have raised concerns of a nuclear arms race, particularly in Asia.
In his first comments on the issue since taking office, Trump said last month that he wants to ensure the U.S. atomic arsenal is at the “top of the pack,” saying the United States had fallen behind in its weapons capacity.
“It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack,” he was quoted as saying.
Prior to that, Trump had said in a December tweet that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
Tillerson, however, broke with Trump on the issue of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons in January, when he told his lawmakers at his confirmation hearings that he didn’t “think anyone advocates for more nuclear weapons on the planet.”