- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia — North Korea’s growing nuclear ambitions threaten to force Australia to re-evaluate its commitment never to develop nuclear weapons.

Ross Babbage, chief of strategic and defense studies at the Australian National University, said that if Japan decided to pursue nuclear weapons as a shield against North Korea, other Southeast Asian countries might follow suit, sparking an arms race in the region.

“We have already started seeing the wheels of proliferation control falling off, and if that happened in the region, then Australia might have to do a rethink of its own,” he said.

Although there is a deep cultural antipathy to nuclear weapons in Japan from the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States during World War II, Tokyo does have the capability to develop nuclear weapons within months.

Australia has been toning down its anti-nuclear rhetoric to keep more in line with U.S. policy.

One of the first U.S. allies to protest President Reagan’s original missile defense plan in the mid-1980s, the government in Canberra remained very quiet when a Senate committee voted last month to overturn a decade-old ban on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons.

Australia found itself sidelined by the United States after nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998. Canberra slapped sanctions on the two countries, but Washington decided that such a move was not necessary.

“Australia has come a long way from the finger-pointing days,” said Wayne Reynolds, nuclear expert and author of “Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb.” He described the country’s anti-nuclear stance as “hypocritical.”

Former Prime Minister John Gorton initially refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and pushed for the construction of a nuclear reactor in Jervis Bay. Permission for the reactor was not given, and Australia reluctantly ratified the NPT in 1973.

Mr. Gorton later revealed to the Sydney Morning Herald in a 1999 interview that the proposal for a nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay was part of a government plan to keep the nuclear option open.

As more countries acquire nuclear weapons, Australia might become less confident in relying on the U.S. umbrella, nuclear policy expert Ron Huisken told the newspaper recently.

Japan has intensified rearmament discussions since North Korea tested a three-stage missile over its territory in 1998.

Countries that suffered terribly under the heel of wartime Japan, including China and South Korea, also are very wary of signs of a re-emergence of its military power.

Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew voiced those regional concerns when he commented on Japanese troops being invited to participate in a peacekeeping mission in Cambodia.

“To let an armed Japan participate is like giving a chocolate filled with whisky to an alcoholic,” he said.

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