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If Japan Doesn’t Go Nuclear, What Are the Options?




North Korea’s advances in its nuclear and ballistic missile program has drastically altered the security environment confronted by Japan.


Further, Japan is facing the reality that the longstanding post-World War II national defense policy of senshu bouei (strictly defensive only) is becoming irrelevant and obsolete for dealing with the current crisis.


First, let me point out that Japan has been under existential threat from North Korea for some decades. Since the 1990s, their “Nodong” intermediate range ballistic missiles extended their range capability to over 1,300 kilometers, which means that almost all of Japan is within range. Also, North Korea is alleged to possess 300 Nodongs and 800 Skud missiles with range of 1,000 kilometers that are targeting Japan. Some of them are tipped with nuclear warheads.


And earlier this month, a nuclear expert released a chilling estimate regarding the cost of war on the Korean peninsula.



This is according to the article published in the website 38 North. It is a simulation based on assumption that North Korea has 25 operational nuclear-tipped IRBMs at present, and that when under attack from the United States and South Korea, North Korea decides to launch its entire arsenal against both Seoul and Tokyo.



Suppose the warhead yield is 25 kiloton, and 20 missiles out of 25 survive Japanese and South Korean missile defense and detonate above both cities. Fatalities would be 947,416 in Tokyo, 1,160,533 in Seoul, and a total of 7.7 million injuries in both cities.


No one wants to see that happen.


That is why Japan is bolstering its missile defense capabilities with the help of the United States. In addition to present sea-based SM3 and land-based Patriot defense system, it plans to deploy two Aegis Ashore systems by 2023.


Many experts say nuclear Korean War is unthinkable.



Even though US President Donald Trump has publicly called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “a madman,” there seems to be a broad consensus in Washington policy and diplomatic circles that KJU is a “rational actor” and he will not resort to nuclear warfare since his main focus is survival of his regime.


Ongoing diplomatic and economic pressure by international community led by Mr. Trump is based on calculations that KJU is a man of rational thinking. And every effort should be made to pressure KJU to come to his senses.



Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly supports this approach, and the firm bond between Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe in tackling the North Korean issue is quite assuring, raising the significance of US-Japan alliance to a higher level.


In addition, US-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation is essential in pressuring North Korea. But, at the same time, I would note that Japan is getting into dire straits since the recent successful ICBM tests and detonation of hydrogen bomb by North Korea.



Even if we could discount the immediate possibilities of nuclear war, we shouldn’t let North Korea blackmail us with its nuclear arsenal. We need to contain and deter the North Korean threat.


In this sense, recent events in North Korea are an important game changer not only for the United States, but for Japan as well. In the next year or two, according to various assessments, North Korea will be able to deploy combat-ready ICBM missiles tipped with miniaturized nuclear warheads.


I would also note that there is an emerging concern in Japan: in case North Korea strikes Japan with nuclear weapons, can we really expect the United States to execute retaliatory attack on North Korea risking the lives of their citizens in San Francisco or New York? Can we still rely on “extended deterrence” from the US?


I strongly believe the US-Japan alliance is a cornerstone of maintaining and advancing peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States has a strong commitment to defending Japan based on Article 5 of US-Japan Security Treaty.


Also, this concern that the US would not risk its cities to defend Japan is still not a big issue in Japan, and I do not have the slightest doubt that both the United States and Japan are committed to further strengthening the alliance for their mutual interest in the region.



Still, I think it is always safer to have a Plan B, which, in this case, is for Japan to develop its own credible deterrence against the North Korean nuclear threat.


For Japan, it is to think out of the box of senshu bouei that I noted earlier.


For those of you who are not familiar with the word, it means Japan’s traditional defense policy, maintaining strictly defensive posture against its adversaries. I will explain a bit further later on, but the basic concept is, you will not fire until you are fired upon. The activities of the Japanese Self Defense Forces are restricted to those of a defensive nature only. It is like being ordered to fight a war while wearing a straitjacket.


The policy is based on past political decisions, and is rooted in the spirit of the pacifist Constitution. The majority of Japanese citizens support amending the article which concerns Japan’s defense policy.

Japan has another restriction—that is Japanese government’s “three non-nuclear principles” of not producing, not possessing, and not allowing the entry of nuclear weapons into the country.


So, it is time to take off that straitjacket. Japan needs to strengthen its deterrenc in a totally different way.



But first, I would like to say that I will not advocate Japan going nuclear. And I would not expect that to become reality in the foreseeable future.


As the only nation that experienced a nuclear holocaust in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan’s society still has a strong sentiment against nuclear weapons. Possessing and producing nuclear weapons is prohibited by domestic law. Any official move to acquire indigenous nuclear weaponry will seriously divide Japan, and no government can survive the backlash.


Also, Japan’s nuclearization will inevitably receive strong condemnation from the international community. It would further impair the credibility of Treaty on the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the so-called NPT regime.


Furthermore, if you take into account the huge cost of developing, producing, and maintaining a nuclear weapon system, this is hardly a viable option at present.




As former US Vice President Joe Biden famously said in August last year, “We wrote Japan’s constitution to say they couldn’t be a nuclear power.” This was mentioned in the context of criticizing then presidential candidate Trump’s comment on letting Japan and South Korea acquire their own nuclear weapons.


Well, Mr. Biden’s comment was blunt, but it was to the point. It is clear that past US administrations, probably since Truman, as a policy did not want Japan to go nuclear.


We are not completely sure about the Trump administration’s position on this issue. But if the United States would prefer Japan not to go nuclear, it would be better that the United States and Japan jointly figure out better options that do not result in Japan having its own nuclear weapons.


So, what are the possibilities for Plan B?


I would like to lay out several ideas which could be considered in the middle to long term.



First: The US deploys nuclear weapons in Japan.


Back in the 1980s during the cold war era, Prime Minister Helmut Schmidt of West Germany introduced US Pershing 2 IRBM to counter the threat of Soviet SS20. Mr. Schmidt’s idea was that extended deterrence from US mainland was not enough to defend West Germany. So, deployment of Pershing 2 created the nuclear parity in European front, produced the level ground for arms control negotiations, and ultimately led to Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which took effect in 1988. Both parties agreed to withdraw their IRBMs from European theater.


This could be a great example for East Asia today in terms of pressure strategy.


Although the United States is reported to be still deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as of today, the situation is quite different in East Asia.


In early 1990s under the George H. W. Bush administration, the US withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. Also, Mr. Bush ordered the US navy to dismount all nuclear-tipped tomahawk cruise missiles from its surface warships.



Despite the non-nuclear principle of not allowing the entry of nuclear weapons into the country, it was an open secret that, during cold war era, those US navy vessels with nuclear tomahawks came in and out of Japanese ports, effectively being a deterrent to various threats.


The Nuclear Posture Review 2010 under the Obama administration noted: “When the Cold War ended, the United States withdrew its forward-deployed nuclear weapons from naval surface vessels and general purpose submarines. Since then, it has relied on its central strategic forces and the capacity to redeploy non-strategic nuclear system in East Asia, is needed, in times of crisis.”


Now, we are in a time of crisis. I believe now is the time for the United States to deploy nuclear weapons in Japan mainland or send nuclear-armed navy vessels to Japanese home ports. My hope is for the upcoming NPR to push this further to seriously consider the front-deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in East Asia.


Second: Introduce the concept of nuclear sharing in East Asia.


As we know, nuclear sharing is a concept in NATO's policy of nuclear deterrence.



For example, when NATO decides to use nuclear weapons, member countries without nuclear weapons of their own would be involved. Especially if these member countries decide to use nuclear weapons, they would provide their own forces in delivering these weapons.


So, simply put, if the US and Japan agree on nuclear sharing, the US nuclear weapon would be stored in Japan under the protection of the US armed forces. Japan would maintain technical equipment required for the use of nuclear weapons, such as bomber planes. In case of war, the weapons are to be mounted on Japanese warplanes.


Although the command and control of nuclear weapons remain in the hands of the US armed forces, a policy of nuclear sharing could be expected to dramatically raise the deterrent power of Japan.



Third: Jointly develop Japan’s indigenous nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine.


I know this is a wild idea. But Japan has expertise in building one of most sophisticated diesel-powered attack submarines in the world. With some help from the US, it could advance its submarine fleet by adding nuclear-powered subs, capable of carrying SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles). This would increase the survivability of a Japanese retaliatory capability in the event of a first strike by the adversary.



And if we could equip the submarines with nuclear missiles under nuclear sharing architecture, this would be a strong deterrent to North Korea. This would ease the burden on the US navy submarine fleets in the face of strains caused by budget cuts and other issues.


Further, in order to secure funding for an expanded defense capability, the present de-facto policy cap of limiting the defense budget to less than 1% of gross domestic product should be removed.


I must admit that none of these proposals are easy to implement, but similar ideas are being talked about recently in defense and security circles in Japan.


Apart from nuclear-related ideas, there are things that Japan can do on conventional field, such as enhance capabilities of neutralizing enemy missile bases by preemptive strike using bombers, attack airplanes, and conventional missiles.




These are the things I would like to see in the long term.


But, what if there would be an immediate crisis, say next year?


At least, that is what Abe administration is cautioning publicly.


The reason Mr. Abe decided to hold the snap election this month is to avoid creating the political vacuum in the coming year, because Mr. Abe was obliged to hold the snap election before the term of the lower house expires at the end of next year.


It’s hard to tell whether Mr. Abe’s prediction that an election next year would create a dangerous political vacuum is accurate. Perhaps Mr. Trump shared part of his plan on North Korea with Mr. Abe. But, anyway, it is certain that Japan should be well prepared for the near term contingencies.



So the question is, is Japan ready?


Thanks to Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security approved in 2015, the Japanese Self-Defense Force became able to exercise collective self-defense in limited extent.


Based on this and the US- Japan Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), if the Japanese government declares that the country is under attack from a foreign country resulting in a threat to Japan’s survival, the SDF can provide necessary support activities to the United States armed forces in combat areas through activities such as supply missions and the refueling of combat aircraft and naval vessels.


The problem with this legislation is that, if the Japanese government stops short of designating the situation one covered under the law—in other words, if Japan is not yet under direct attack and suddenly fighting starts—Japanese forces must immediately cease their ongoing activities and retreat from the combat area.


Also, the use of force is strictly limited. According to the government guidelines called “3 conditions for use of force,” which accompanied the 2015 legislation, the Self-Defense Force needs to fulfill all of the following condition to use their force:



(1) When an armed attack against Japan occurs, or when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs, and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,


(2) When there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack and ensure Japan’s survival and protects its people,


(3) Use of force limited to the minimum extent necessary


Furthermore, prior approval from Parliament is necessary for the use of force.


I think you understand what I meant by straitjacket.



These restrictions must be eliminated so that the Self-Defense Force could exercise full-fledged collective defense.


The result of the snap election on October 22 is anyone’s guess. But if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition secures the two-thirds majority, we can anticipate solid conservative administration for the next couple of years, and pending security issues, including amendment of the Constitution, to move ahead.


We are living in a very challenging time. But through this challenge, Japan has a great opportunity to transform itself and further contribute to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the world.



Yoshinari Kurose is Washington DC bureau chief of Sankei Shimbun. This article was first presented as a speech at the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS) fall symposium at Heritage Foundation, Washington DC on October 13, 2017.


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