Amid mounting exchanges of harsh words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there is a rising opinion within certain quarters in the United States that Japan and South Korea should be armed with nuclear weapons.
Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator, may gain support from some populace when he asks why the U.S. has to defend Japan and South Korea, whose economies are 100 times and 40 times, respectively, larger than the North’s. Echoing what Trump said during the campaign last year, Buchanan points out that while North Korea’s defense spending accounts for 25 percent of its gross domestic product, the comparable figures are 2.6 percent for South Korea and less than 1 percent for Japan. Under these circumstances, how long will Japan be able to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and maintain its long-standing policy of neither possessing or building nuclear weapons or permitting their introduction into the country?
Triggering the idea of nuclearizing Japan and South Korea were comments made by Susan Rice, former national security adviser under President Barack Obama, and James Clapper, ex-director of national intelligence. Writing for the op-ed page of The New York Times on Aug. 10, Rice said Trump’s mention of “fire and fury” against Pyongyang was in total disregard of 23,000 U.S. military personnel and 200,000 family members living in Seoul among the 26 million population of the South Korean capital, which lies within the North’s shooting range. Calling a pre-emptive strike against the North — said to be among Trump’s options — a reckless idea, Rice proposed that the U.S. should recognize the North as a nuclear power while controling its behavior so that it would never use the weapons. Three days later, Clapper said in a CNN interview that denuclearizing the North is not the only solution. Both Rice and Clapper have thus favored de facto recognition of the North’s possession of nuclear arms, which in turn would lower the hurdles for negotiating with the North — thereby playing right into Kim’s hands.
Those arguments were rebutted not only by the Trump administration but also by the Wall Street Journal, which in its Aug. 30 editorial said the North’s firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan is changing the security landscape in Northeast Asia and pushing Japan toward owning its own nuclear arsenal. Noting that Japan had enough plutonium to build more than 1,000 nuclear warheads and sufficient know-how to do so within months, the Journal said Japanese leaders might change their minds against possessing nuclear weapons once they feel the U.S. cannot be depended on in the event of a major crisis.
On Aug. 3, Christopher Wallace, anchorman of the Fox News, said the need for arming with nuclear weapons is being felt by a growing number of people in Japan — an idea which he said had been utterly unthinkable in the past. Regardless of whether such arms are to be developed independently or to be supplied from another country, Wallace said, such thinking is no longer monopolized by extremists. It is not clear how much he is knowledgeable about what’s happening in Japan, but it should be borne in mind that the idea of nuclearizing Japan has started being discussed in an influential media outlet deemed close to Trump.
Writing for the Sept. 1 issue of “azcentral.com,” a digital outlet of the Arizona Republic newspaper, columnist Robert Robb renewed his support for Trump’s idea of arming Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons, which the president fanned as candidate in the 2016 campaign, and said that once the North became capable of firing intercontinental ballistic missiles to the U.S. mainland, the deterrent power of the American nuclear umbrella for the two allies would weaken.
How many isolationist Americans are there who think that should the U.S. withdraw from Asia even to a small extent, the resulting vacuum should be filled by Japan and South Korea? A part of the answer may be found in a column written for the Sept. 5 issue of the Wall Street Journal by Walter Russel Mead, professor of foreign affairs at Bard College and distinguished scholar at the Hudson Institute.
Mead says there are two schools of thought within the U.S. government about Japan having nuclear weapons.
One advocated by top White House advisers, he says, is that it is in the best interest of the U.S. to maintain the status quo in the Pacific region while keeping Japan as it is.
The other group, which follows Trump’s “America First” doctrine, would think the American diplomacy will have succeeded, and not failed, if Northeast Asian countries start arming themselves with nuclear weapons, according to Mead.
He goes on to say that China’s geopolitical ambitions would be contained if Japan, South Korea and Taiwan became nuclear powers, enabling the U.S. to withdraw its troops from South Korea. If this scenario leads to making America’s allies pay more for containment of China, he says, that would be an ideal situation under the “America First” slogan.
The Trump administration is demanding allies such as Japan, South Korea and the NATO member nations not just to boost their defense spending but to play greater roles to alleviate burdens on the U.S. As Mead has said, Trump is not alone in believing that arming the Northeast Asian countries with nuclear weapons would spell a success for the American diplomacy.
South Korea, meanwhile, is reacting much more seriously than Japan to the North’s behaviors. An opinion survey conducted shortly after Pyongyang’s nuclear test on Sept. 3 showed that 68 percent of the South Koreans said American tactical nuclear weapons, which had been taken out of the country in 1991, should be brought back, while 60 percent thought their country should develop its own nuclear arms. That subject was discussed when South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo met with his American counterpart James Mattis in Washington in early September. Later, both a high-ranking White House official and Senator John McCain said such possibility could not be ruled out.
Whether South Korea should either develop nuclear weapons on its own or buy them from another country was discussed by Lee Choon-geun of the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy during a debate session on March 3, 2011.
His statements can be summarized as follows: (1) if South Korea had its own nuclear weapons, Japan would almost automatically follow suit; (2) that would put Japan on equal footing with Britain and France with hundreds of nuclear warheads; (3) that in turn would have a devastating impact on China’s ambition of building a global hegemony; and (4) with Japan armed with nuclear weapons, China would find it hard to be a ruler of Asia, let alone the world.
Lee went on to say that the easy way for China to prevent South Korea from having nuclear weapons is to use its influence over Pyongyang and force Kim and his cohorts to abandon their nuclear ambitions. This is exactly what is being attempted by the U.S. and the international community today.
Japan must think seriously of what to do in the event of an emergence of a unified Korea armed with nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, before China followed France in joining the nuclear club, Gen. Pierre Gallois, a French nuclear strategist and one of President Charles de Gaulle’s advisers, had an exclusive interview with a major Japanese newspaper, in which he said Japan, too, would soon arm itself with nuclear weapons.
Although his prediction did not come true, there existed a sense of mission in Japan’s journalism — though as a minority opinion — to query the public as to what is the theory behind nuclear armament.
Half a century later, the situation in Northeast Asia demands the same question asked by Gallois. Japan can no longer keep seeking to duck whenever difficult national security problems arise.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. More English articles from the magazine can be read at www.sentaku-en.com