Should Japan go nuclear? Michael Rubin argues that diplomacy isn’t working
As the North Korean nuclear threat looms ever larger, it has been suggested that Japan support the US and stabilize the region by obtaining nuclear weapons. But does it make sense for Japan to abandon a long-held pacifist stance and take this dramatic step? GRI asked AEI resident scholar Michael Rubin, diplomacy expert and author of Dancing with the Devil, to weigh in.
North Korea and the United States increasingly seem to be on a collision course. Almost 65 years since both countries signed an armistice pausing (though not technically ending) the Korean War, and more than two decades after both sides reached the Agreed Framework which was meant to resolve concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, tension is again on the rise. In recent months, North Korea has tested ballistic missiles that could potentially hit the United States, and it claims the ability to develop nuclear warheads small enough to fit on them. Every nuclear or missile test, even if failures, brings the hermit kingdom one step closer to the ability to make good on its rhetoric.
President Trump, meanwhile, has approached North Korea with bluster. He signaled both at his UN General Assembly speech and in tweets directed at his own Secretary of State that diplomacy with Pyongyang is a waste of time.
Some former diplomats and prominent officials disagree. State Department veterans Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky took the Washington Post to argue that diplomacy can work with Pyongyang. Former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, headlined former senators and negotiators in a letterlikewise seeking more diplomacy.
Diplomacy isn’t working
The problem is, however, that diplomacy with Pyongyang has a poor track-record. North Korea has systematically cheated or shredded every single agreement they have reached with the United States and its regional allies. As I argue in Dancing with the Devil, a history of a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes like North Korea, talking for the sake of talking can have a very high cost, especially when an adversary is insincere from the start. Chuck Downs’ Over the Line is by far the best book ever written about North Korea’s approach to negotiations should be required reading for anyone who believes negotiations can bear fruit.
Meanwhile, a quarter century of working through China has not worked. Rather than bring its sometimes client to heel, Beijing has too often appears engaged in a strategy of good cop-bad cop, collecting American diplomatic and trade concessions and waivers on sensitive technology, all the while falling short on reining in Pyongyang. Whether Chinese leaders are insincere or powerless to win over their North Korean counterparts is irrelevant; the simple fact is they have not made good on their promises.
So what to do?
Starting a nuclear conversation
During his campaign for the White House, President Donald Trump suggested that Japan (and South Korea) might need nuclear weapons, before reversing himself against the backdrop of a deluge criticism from across the political spectrum. But, while many strategists can hate the messenger, the message may not have been wrong.
Despite its history and constitution, Japan is already nuclear weapons-capable: It has the knowledge and materials; all it needs to do is figurative if not literally turn a few screws. Of course, there is historic revulsion in Japan about nuclear weapons because the country is the only one to suffer their wrath, but that anti-nuclear consensus may not as strong as some outsiders assume, especially 72 years after their use and against the backdrop of the North Korean threat.
This need not mean Japan must go nuclear, but beginning a serious conversation about the prospect would be the only thing that can get China to stand up and take notice. History may not mean much in the U.S. mindset, but the historical animosity between China and Japan rivals anything coming out of the Balkans in sheer depth, especially after the atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s.
China does not want a nuclear rival in East Asia; it is already uncomfortable with India having nuclear weapons. The question is what diplomatic actions might Beijing take to assuage Tokyo and convince it that it does not need the bomb?
No good options
Of course, turning a blind eye toward nuclear proliferation is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Every country that goes nuclear (India and Pakistan, for example) or which the international community by default allows (North Korea and Iran, after the sunset clause) erodes the threshold for the next state which might harbor nuclear ambitions. Diplomatically, encouraging a nuclear Japan might also have second order effects as it emboldens Japanese ultra-nationalists, although some of the concern about this voiced in the non-proliferation community seems overblown.
Regardless, when it comes to North Korea, there is no good option; all the choices are unsavory. A nuclear Japan, however, may be the least unsavory of all the choices, especially if its prospect causes China to reconsider the wisdom of its policies.