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Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006

North's gambit may weaken Japanese taboo on nuke talk

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Despite Tokyo's pledge to remain nonnuclear and assurances from top U.S. officials that their most important Pacific ally will do just that, North Korea's apparent atomic test is expected to further weaken taboos about talk of a nuclear-armed Japan in both Washington and Tokyo.

Influential academics and researchers, as well as politicians on both sides of the Pacific, have long called for Japan to seriously consider developing a nuclear deterrent.

In an interview with The Japan Times in 1999, just after he was fired from his post as vice defense minister for suggesting Japan acquire nuclear weapons, former lawmaker Shingo Nishimura said many American politicians and defense officials he spoke with wanted Japan to drop its taboo on public discussion of the issue.

Seven years later, Japan experts in the U.S. say people inside and outside the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush who favor a nuclear Japan are pushing like-minded Japanese to raise the issue.

"Key American Japan-handlers are helping to coax politicians like (former Prime Minister Yasuhiro) Nakasone, (Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro) Ozawa and others to publicly discuss Japanese nuclear options," said Steven Clemons, director of foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

"These people, especially those who have left the Bush administration but are still influential, are helping to enable the thinking, and sparking synapses in Tokyo about this politically volatile topic.

"Obviously, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can't publicly repudiate the nonnuclear principles, but he can, perhaps, privately work to establish a new consensus," Clemons said of Japan's stated principles of not possessing, not producing and not allowing the entry into the country of atomic weapons.

Ozawa, who has strong connections with many politicians and policymakers in Washington, has publicly voiced support for Japan going nuclear. In April 2002, he said Japan could easily produce nuclear arms, using plutonium extracted from spent reactor fuel.

Nishimura said Ozawa agreed Japan should acquire nuclear weapons and said Ozawa's main objection to Nishimura's remarks was their timing, coming only a few weeks after a deadly September 1999 accident at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Debate over whether Japan should have such weapons is also taking place in the U.S. Congress. Late last month, the House Select Committee on Intelligence released a report warning that if North Korea conducted a nuclear test, both South Korea and Japan might develop their own nuclear weapons.

How would Japan acquire such weapons? Extracting plutonium from conventional nuclear plants is one option, although both Japanese antinuclear activists and international experts, including Nobel Prize winners and former arms control negotiators, have warned that the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture is essentially a bomb factory that could more easily give Japan an ample supply of atomic weapons-grade material.

A second option would be to allow the United States to bring nuclear weapons into Japan, something that happened in secret during the Cold War.

Declassified records show that the U.S. military stored atomic weapons in Okinawa and the Ogasawara Islands, and brought them into Japanese ports in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Tokyo could request short-term deployment of U.S. nukes on Japanese soil" Clemons said. A longer-term possibility, he added, would be for Japan to develop but not declare a nuclear weapons capability, remaining vague about what arms it actually possessed -- something Israel has done to deter an attack by its Arab neighbors.

Over the past two days, as international concern over Japan going nuclear has been voiced around the world, Bush administration officials and their advisers have rushed to assure the world that they do not believe Japan will go nuclear.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in a television interview with FOX News, said there was no evidence that developing nuclear weapons was something that either Japanese politicians or the public would support.

But Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, which is connected to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and often advises the Bush administration on Asia policy, said North Korea's nuclear test will encourage conservatives and nationalists in Japan to push for nuclear weapons.

Glosserman said Japanese public and security experts are against the idea, however, both because of antinuclear sentiment among the public and worries about how China might react.

"The Japanese public remains highly allergic to the thought of developing . . . nuclear weapons capability, and Japanese security planners recognize a national nuclear arsenal would be destabilizing and actually diminish Japanese security by generating greater mistrust among (Japan's) neighbors."

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The Japan Times

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