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[Speaking Out] Japan's Three Non-Nuclear Principles Make No Sense in Current Security Climate

Despite the growing nuclear threat and waning US influence, Japan stays committed to its three non-nuclear principles while South Korea's stance is proactive.

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Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and President Biden shake hands during a ceremony at the White House on April 26. (© AP via Kyodo)

Given the fact that China, Russia, and North Korea are all armed with nuclear weapons, we can conclude that Japan and South Korea are in a dangerous international environment unparalleled in the world. For this reason, Japan and South Korea have relied solely on the US extended deterrence. But the prestige of the United States has begun to waver. Nevertheless, Japan has stuck by its three non-nuclear principles.

Backed by growing public support for the acquisition of its own nuclear weapons, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in his speech at Harvard University emphasized that he and US President Joe Biden have successfully upgraded existing extended deterrence for South Korea. 

South Korea has embarked on coordinating an approach to the nuclear issue with the US. Given this context, it seems bizarre for Japan to stick to its official position of retaining the so-called three non-nuclear principles: Not possessing, not producing, and not allowing the introduction of nuclear weapons into the country.

North Korea
Missile launched by North Korea's "tactical nuclear operations units" between September 25 and October 9, 2022. (© Korean Central News Agency via Kyodo)

An Unconcealable Decline in US Prestige

Japan has seen little discussion on how much the United States, the biggest ally of both Japan and South Korea, has been waning. Here I cite two recent examples indicating its decline. 

First, China mediated an Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement to normalize their bilateral diplomatic relations. It is difficult to predict whether relations between the two former rivals will develop smoothly. However, we can assume that the normalization came as a great shock to Washington. 

American policy on the Middle East originated from an event on a US cruiser at the Suez Canal in the final days of World War II. Then-US President Franklin D Roosevelt held a meeting with then-Saudi Arabian King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and secured oil supply routes in exchange for a promise of security for Saudi Arabia. This basic framework for US-Saudi relations has collapsed. Meanwhile, China has secured a key region for its Belt and Road Initiative to expand its sphere of influence.

Russia's Nuclear Intimidation

Second, the US has kept away from direct military intervention in the Ukraine war for more than a year. It has also been unable to make a move under Russian President Vladimir Putin's frequent nuclear intimidation. 

It is natural — especially for Japan and South Korea, which depend on the US nuclear umbrella — to feel insecure about the existing US extended deterrence. If Yoon's visit to America was motivated by his deep-seated concern about national security, we might have to reevaluate his accommodating policy toward Japan.

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I read a report by two budding US researchers titled "South Korea's Nuclear Options" in the web edition of the US Foreign Affairs magazine. It explained the background of South Korea's tough choice in the face of three nuclear options:

  1. Arming itself with nuclear weapons,
  2. Reintroducing US nuclear weapons on its soil, or
  3. Nuclear sharing, as adopted by some North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. 

South Korea has gone far ahead of Japan on the nuclear issue.

Biden-Yoon summit
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and President Joe Biden attend a ceremony at the White House on April 26. (© Reuters via Kyodo)

Don't Overrate the Three Security Documents

In Japan, the government's three key security documents adopted in late 2022 have been rated highly. Some boast that Japan's defense spending will soon be doubled to 2% of gross domestic product. 

However, the Self-Defense Forces have been placed under the Police Act since the days of their predecessor, the National Police Reserve. Likewise, the three non-nuclear principles have been retained. And the government still sticks to a defense-only policy that limits capabilities to the "minimum necessary" for self-defense. 

Moreover, if an SDF officer kills an enemy, the officer could be charged with murder under the penal code in the absence of a military court. These abnormalities are unchanged.

A call to raise defense spending to 3.5% of GDP is growing within NATO. Why does Japan not realize that it is lagging behind other countries of the Free World?


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(A version of this article was first published by the
Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #1034 in Japanese on May 1 and in English on May 2, 2023.)


Author: Tadae Takubo

Tadae Takubo is Vice President of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and professor emeritus of Kyorin University.