North Korea’s underground nuclear test of Oct. 9, which has drawn a flurry of sharp reactions in the international community, has also brought the perennially simmering question of Japan’s nuclear option to the surface again.

Shoichi Nakagawa, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Affairs Research Council, rekindled controversy when he said on a popular TV talk-show program Oct. 15 that Japan needs to discuss the nuclear option from every angle for the sake of its peace and security. He stressed, however, adherence to Japan’s nonnuclear principle.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso told a Lower House Foreign Affairs Committee session Oct. 25 that although he abides by the nonnuclear principle, it is natural that Japan, facing North Korea with nuclear weapons in its arsenal, should freely debate what had led Japan originally to adopt the nonnuclear principle.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in an attempt to defuse the controversy, has stressed that Japan has no intention of changing its long-standing three-point nonnuclear principle of “not possessing, not producing and not allowing the entry into Japan of nuclear weapons,” adding that the government and the ruling LDP will not discuss the possibility of Japan going nuclear.

Japan could potentially be seen as a nuclear-weapons state if assessed only from the narrow perspective of its technological capabilities. The question of whether Japan will go nuclear should be viewed and addressed from wider political and strategic perspectives.

However, officials of the government and ruling parties directly involved in policymaking must be discreet about their remarks on the nuclear issue so as not to create undue international suspicions about Japan’s intentions. Careless juggling of the nuclear option, particularly while the international community, including Japan, is pressing North Korea to scrap its nuclear program, might be exploited by other countries to criticize Japan’s policy stance.

True, the government may be able to legitimize possession of nuclear weapons by a legal interpretation of the Constitution, but it is hard to imagine Japan’s national interests being served by publicly proposing such a theoretical possibility.

Abe, when he was deputy chief Cabinet secretary in the Koizumi administration, told a Waseda University symposium a few years ago that the Japanese Constitution did not prohibit possession of nuclear weapons if intended solely for defensive purposes. His comment, although conforming to the official line at the time, prompted criticism from the opposition.

International affairs pundits have long discussed the possibility that North Korea’s nuclear armament could lead to a nuclear “domino effect” in East Asia, namely Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has been predicting since the 1970s that Japan would become a military power with nuclear weapons at some stage in the future.

Defense Agency Director General Fumio Kyuma, addressing a Foreign Correspondence Club of Japan meeting, called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons as an ultimate goal while saying that a nonnuclear Japan has no alternative but to depend on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Former Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba, a Liberal Democrat, says possessing nuclear weapons is not the only deterrent to a nuclear attack, adding that it would undermine the vital relationship between Japan and the U.S.

Seiji Maehara, former leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, says political realities make it utterly impossible for Japan to go nuclear because it would destroy the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime and deny the Japan-U.S. alliance. DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama cautions that the very discussion of the issue can send out the wrong message and cause mistrust among neighboring countries.

All of these arguments are valid because Japan fully relies on the U.S. nuclear deterrent. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reassured Japan of the U.S. commitment to maintaining that umbrella while visiting Tokyo on Oct. 19 on the first leg of her trip to Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to discuss North Korea.

Rice reaffirmed President George W. Bush’s Oct. 9 statement that the U.S. has the will and capability to meet the full range of security commitments to Japan. She told media in Tokyo that the U.S. regards armed attack or the threat of attack on Japan as a direct threat to the U.S.

There is a good chance that South and North Korea may be unified in the future with the possession of nuclear weapons. China is a big nuclear power. India and Pakistan have successively developed nuclear capability outside the realm of NPT. Israel is suspected of having nuclear weapons. It is not clear how Iran’s nuclear development will be settled.

Under these circumstances, Japan, instead of going nuclear as a short-term goal, should continue to work hard with other like-minded countries for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

The Institute for International Policy Studies, where I serve as president, has advanced “A Vision of Japan in the 21st Century,” which says in part: “While adhering to its stance as a nonnuclear nation, Japan should work to strengthen the NPT regime. At the same time, Japan should prepare for drastic changes in the international situation in the future through a thorough examination of the nuclear issue.”

This proposal came out about a month before North Korea declared its intention to conduct a nuclear test. Its focal point is to maintain a nonnuclear Japan while preparing for drastic changes in the next 20 to 30 years by conducting a thorough study of various aspects of the nuclear issue.

For its peace and security at present, Japan must make additional efforts to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and deploy ballistic missile defense systems without delay in close cooperation with the U.S. while maintaining its nonnuclear principle.

North Korea’s agreement to return to the six-party talks in Beijing by the end of the year is welcome news. These talks are the only framework for the countries directly concerned to progress toward solutions with regard to North Korea’s nuclear-arms development.

Because of our bitter experiences with the North’s unpredictable behavior over the years, we should not be too optimistic about the results of the next meeting. Pyongyang may use tactics to buy time to analyze the political situation in the U.S. following the midterm elections Tuesday. Under the circumstances, Japan should make efforts to maintain a unified position with the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia.

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