Barack Obama’s bold pledge in Prague back in 2009 to realize a nuclear-free world resonated powerfully in Japan and culminated in his 2016 visit to Hiroshima.
There, the U.S. president said: “We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.” In his view, Hiroshima represents an awakening to the need for a moral revolution.
But Obama also justified continued possession of nuclear weapons: “We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”
The logic of fear remains resilient. Moreover, there don’t appear to be any world leaders inclined to promote a progressive moral revolution. In our world of illiberal democracies, the concept of a moral revolution has been hijacked by strongmen favoring jingoistic agendas, like India’s Narendra Modi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Readers interested in the rise of such strongmen should read Basharat Peer’s excellent new work “A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of the Strongmen.” This comparative study in atavism shreds hopes for the kind of moral revolution that Obama called for.
Across the globe, populists are whipping up fears and primordial instincts in the service of their reactionary agendas. Making nations great again apparently involves a remorseless, unapologetic militant nationalism.
In this unfavorable context for progressive idealism, Japan’s hibakusha are not buying their government’s capitulation on negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. Toshiki Fujimori, assistant secretary general of the Japan Confederation of Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo) testified on March 27 at the United Nations conference in New York, where representatives of 115 countries had gathered to negotiate a legally binding ban on nuclear weapons. Nihon Hidankyo was established in 1956 and has been campaigning ever since to ensure there will be no more hibakusha, lending its unique moral authority to the cause of banning the bomb.
Fujimori, who was 16 months old on Aug. 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, said: “My fourth-eldest sister was 13 years old and was in her first year of an all-girls junior high school. She was around 400 meters from the hypocenter when the bomb was dropped. Together with her teachers and other students, my sister was there to demolish houses to create fire-safe areas against air raids.
“All 676 of them, including my sister, were killed instantly through direct exposure to radiation, the heat, and the blast from the bomb. It is said that altogether in the city of Hiroshima, 8,400 students in the first and second year of junior high schools were being mobilized for similar purposes.” He added, “Nobody, in any country, deserves to see the same hell on Earth again.”
Fujimori lamented: “Nuclear-weapon states and their allied nuclear-dependent states are against concluding a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. Despite being the only country in the world that experienced the wartime use of nuclear weapons, the Japanese government voted against established this negotiating conference.”
The moral revolution seems further away than ever with Abe’s abnegation of Japan’s unique position regarding nuclear weapons. Tokyo’s logic is that as long as it depends on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, it can’t really have it both ways. And that umbrella is seen to be ever more necessary in light of North Korea’s intensified nuclear weapons program — which has entailed more than 20 missile tests over the past year and a total of five nuclear tests over the past decade, with another apparently imminent.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida explained that outlawing nuclear weapons at a gathering where none of the nations that possess such weapons are in attendance doesn’t make sense. He said Japan needs to be pragmatic, warning that the talks “could also further deepen the rift between nuclear and nonnuclear weapons states.” While Tokyo gives lip service to a world free of nuclear weapons, it remains vague as to how it hopes to reach that goal, fearful of alienating Washington. Preserving harmony in the alliance trumps what is dismissed as a quixotic campaign to outlaw weapons that pose an existential threat to humanity.
On March 30, Hiroshi Imazu, chair of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Research Commission on Security, presented a report to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that advocates acquiring the capacity for preemptive strikes on North Korean missile sites.
“Japan can’t just wait until it’s destroyed,” Imazu said. “It’s legally possible for Japan to strike an enemy base that’s launching a missile at us, but we don’t have the equipment or capability.” Understood, but how can Japan track Pyongyang’s fast-moving mobile launchers?
Last September, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear detonation, the third since Kim Jong Un took over the country’s leadership in December 2011. As nuclear weapons expert Siegfried Hecker noted on the website 38 North, “Five tests conducted over a 10-year period, sufficiently spaced that the test results can inform the next test, are deeply alarming.”
He added: “Left unchecked, Pyongyang will likely develop the capability to reach the continental United States with a nuclear-tipped missile in a decade or so. The likely ability of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) to put nuclear weapons on target anywhere in South Korea and Japan, and even on some U.S. assets in the Pacific, greatly complicates the regional military picture. That situation would be exacerbated if Pyongyang decides to field tactical nuclear weapons.”
The LDP has long wanted to shed the defensive-only security posture that has prevailed over the past seven decades, and in the spirit of not letting a crisis go to waste, the Abe government is moving toward doing so.
Acting on Imazu’s proposal would mean a significant increase in Japan’s military spending, and much of that would go toward purchases from American defense companies. Given U.S. President Donald Trump’s harumphing about trade deficits, upgrading Japan ballistic missile defense systems and purchases of cruise missiles might be timely multipurpose insurance.
Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is triggering a regional arms race where the logic suggests further proliferation, annihilation or both. Isn’t it time to sit down with Kim Jong Un and try to figure out some better scenarios?
Maybe there is no good deal waiting to be made, but nobody seems to be trying very hard to make one.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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