Not Going Nuclear: Japan's Response to North Korea's Nuclear Test

Article excerpt

Since North Korea's nuclear test on October 9, 2006, there has been considerable foreign speculation that the explosion might prompt Japan to develop its own nuclear weapons arsenal. These views do not reflect the relatively restrained reaction in Japan itself. Although the test helped break a public taboo on discussing the possibility of a Japanese nuclear capability there is little serious desire to replace the U.S. nuclear umbrella with a homegrown nuclear option. Indeed, the discussions themselves may have been aimed in part at shoring up the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. Rather than relying on nuclear weapons, Japan's security policy seems more geared toward strengthening cooperation with the United States while shoring up global nonproliferation efforts.

North Korea's nuclear test certainly shocked the Japanese public. Just after the test, an Asahi Shimbun poll found that 82 percent of the respondents were "concerned." Some 44 percent of those polled felt a "strong threat" from North Korea, and 38 percent felt "some level of threat." It seems, however, that such concerns were neither deep nor sustained. The Japanese public in general did not demonstrate active interest in taking any specific measures, such as establishing underground shelters. Rather the Japanese media focused primarily on the radioactive contamination risks the test might pose to Japan. Having recognized that such risk was almost nonexistent, the public interest on this issue faded away promptly.

After November 2006, the Japanese media's coverage of North Korea focused more on Pyongyang's decades-old abduction of Japanese citizens than concern over North Korea's current nuclear weapon programs. There is a view among some experts that the Japanese public's "sense of loathing" toward the Kim Jong Il regime may have overridden its perception of the threat emanating from North Korea's missiles and nuclear-weapon programs.

The Japanese government also has been restrained in several regards in its response to the tests. First, although it imposed sanctions on North Korea, Tokyo appears to place a higher priority on the abductions matter. Following his 2006 inauguration, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly established within his cabinet an office to manage the abductions issue. Abe did not create an equivalent office to address Pyongyang's nuclear or missüe programs, despite his repeated statements that North Korea's nuclear weapons presented the gravest threat to Japan, nor was any voice raised among the Japanese media in support of establishing such an office.

Second, Tokyo remains reluctant to negotiate with North Korea on ballistic missile development and deployment, although Japan is the country that should be most concerned about Pyongyang's medium-range ballistic missile programs.

Third, despite North Korea's nuclear testing and missile firings, Japan has not seriously discussed or received strong domestic pressure to increase the defense budget. The reduction of the government's accumulated deficit, almost 150 percent of Japan's gross domestic product (GDP), still remains one of Tokyo's top priorities, and the defense budget remains at less than 1 percent of GDP. Each military service branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, for instance, has been forced to cut back on personnel and procurement.

Fourth, soon after North Korea's nuclear test, Japanese officials discussed the need to enact new legislation to enable interdiction and inspection of North Korean ships with suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) -related cargoes on the high seas, but such discussion has faded. Similarly, Japanese officials also weighed procuring and deploying an offensive weapon system to take out North Korea's missile launching sites. This discussion has faded as well.

To be sure, Tokyo has speeded up deployment of proposed anti-missile systems, and a limited number of politicians and experts have argued in favor of Japan pursuing a nuclear option. …