Former U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster has said that the United States accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear power would prompt Japan to debate whether or not it needed its own nuclear weapons, a claim that comes amid rekindled tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
McMaster, in an interview published earlier this month with the Asahi Shimbun daily, was answering a question about the possibility of military conflict on the peninsula in 2017, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unleashed a spate of missile launches and conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date. U.S. President Donald Trump responded with vitriol, vowing to rain “fire and fury” on the North if Kim threatened the United States.
Asked about the possibility of war, the retired lieutenant general said: “I do think that we were on a path that, if we were unable to alter it, that it was on a path to conflict.”
McMaster noted that “it was very important for us to emphasize preparation for what could have been a preventive military action.”
“What’s important is that we and our allies, the United States and Japan, and the United States and South Korea, are prepared for the worst,” he said.
Preventive military action refers to strikes initiated to prevent an enemy from acquiring an attacking capability, with no immediate threat of attack from the enemy. North Korea, however, was already believed to possess nuclear weapons and powerful ballistic missiles, meaning any attack could have endangered allies Japan and South Korea, as well as U.S. troops based there.
Over a period of five days earlier this month, North Korea conducted two launches of short-range missiles — part of what it said were military drills designed to bolster the nuclear-armed country’s “various long-range strike means.” Those moves, the first such tests in more than 500 days, were widely seen as intended to heap more pressure on Trump amid stalled nuclear talks with the U.S.
According to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies North Korea Missile Test Database, Pyongyang conducted a total of 22 missile launches in 2017, including the country’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, Hwasong-14, as well as its even longer-range Hwasong-15. It also lobbed two intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missiles over Hokkaido in August and September of that year.
“Some people have argued ‘Well, we should accept North Korea’s nuclear power and then deter North Korea,'” McMaster said.
“The problem with that is the effect that a nuclear North Korea will have on the nonproliferation regime,” he added. “I think that there would be a debate in Japan about if Japan required a nuclear deterrent capability. There would be a debate in South Korea about that.”
Japan — the only country to be attacked with nuclear weapons — adheres to the so-called three nonnuclear principles, which rule out the production, possession and introduction of nuclear weapons. Despite this policy, the idea that Japan could become a nuclear power in a relatively short time has persisted.
Some observers have argued that Japan maintains the technology, raw materials and cash needed to produce nuclear weapons within as quickly as a year, if necessary
Paul Leventhal, head of the Nuclear Control Institute, a nonprofit watchdog in Washington, told the journal Nature in November 2004 that many consider Japan to be little more than “a screwdriver away” from a nuclear weapon.
“Most think it could get a bomb in a matter of weeks to months, if not days,” Leventhal said.
Still, there is little public appetite for Japan acquiring its own nuclear arsenal, a fact that has constrained any push to even discuss the taboo issue.
According to a 2017 survey by the Genron NPO, a nonprofit independent think tank, fewer than 1 in 10 Japanese believe Japan should have nuclear weapons, with nearly 75 percent against the idea.