Walkom: Japan debates about U.S. reliability in Korea crisis

How does an officially pacifist country like Japan protect itself from a nuclear-armed North Korea? The short answer is: with some difficulty. The long answers are being quietly debated.

After the Second World War, the victorious Americans insisted that Japan adopt a so-called peace constitution. In it, Japan renounced the use of war. More importantly, the new constitution declared that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Within a few years and faced with what it believed was a Communist threat in Asia, the U.S. changed its mind about the desirability of an armed Japan. But by this time, the peace constitution was overwhelmingly popular among Japanese citizens. So when the government in Tokyo established armed forces in 1954, it got around the constitutional prohibition by simply calling them something different. It called them the Self-Defence Forces, or SDF.

Today, the SDF is powerful and well-armed. Japan’s defence budget is the seventh-largest in the world, surpassing that of France, Germany, South Korea – and North Korea.

But politically, the peace constitution still weighs heavily.

Yoshimitsu Morihiro, a deputy director at the ministry of defence, explains in an interview that the SDF cannot legally shoot down North Korean missiles that pass over the country (as two did earlier this year) unless they are aimed at or liable to damage Japan.

Under the authority of a recently passed law, he says, Japan may have the right to shoot down a North Korean missile launched against, say, the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. But the decision would have to be made by Japan’s Parliament, or Diet.

It would not be legal for Japan to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Besides, says Morihiro, the SDF does not have the capability to do so.

So what is to be done? Officially, Japan is protected by the U.S. and its nuclear umbrella.

Officially, an attack by North Korea on Japan would invite U.S. retaliation. But unofficially, Japan’s political establishment has been rattled by U.S. President Donald Trump’s musings. Trump has questioned the value of protecting wealthy allies such as Japan.

Now that North Korea has the capacity to hit the continental U.S. with nuclear missiles, some here question whether Washington would risk such an attack by coming to Japan’s aid if it were threatened.

That in turn has quietly opened the debate on whether Japan should develop its own nuclear weapons.

The defence ministry’s Morihiro points out that under current law such a move would be illegal. Hideshi Tokuchi, a security expert with the Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says that a decision by Japan to develop atomic weapons would only increase the problems posed by nuclear proliferation.

But on the website of the English Speaking Union of Japan, former ambassador to Uzbekistan Akio Kawato asks the forbidden question: Would Japan go nuclear?

He argues that if a political solution to the Korean crisis is ultimately reached and the U.S. withdraws its forces from South Korea, Japan could find itself with a united, hostile and nuclear-armed nation on its doorstep.

In such a scenario, Kawato says, it might make sense for Japan to follow in the footsteps of Britain and France by developing its own nuclear weapons.

In another post to the same website, former ambassador to Canada, Sadaaki Numata, and former ambassador to Italy, Masamichi Hanabusa, argue that given the “unprincipled, at times erratic Trump presidency,” Japan cannot depend on the U.S.

Instead, the authors write, Japan should join with like-minded nations to find an “escape route” for North Korea that would involve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and a commitment by Japan to write an atomic weapons ban into its constitution.

Japan, they say, would do better to work more closely with China, Russia and South Korea to solve the crisis.

Diminishing Japan’s reliance on the U.S. is usually considered heresy here. That the idea is being raised at all is telling. That it is being raised by charter members of the foreign policy establishment is even more so.

National affairs columnist Thomas Walkom is in Tokyo as a guest of the Foreign Press Center Japan.

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