- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday that North Korea’s claim it conducted a nuclear test will not affect his country’s constitutional ban on developing nuclear weapons, but all of the North’s neighbors face fundamental military and foreign policy questions in the wake of the test.

Mr. Abe, a hard-liner who has long pushed for a more assertive Japanese defense, told a parliamentary committee that fears in the region that Japan will seek a nuclear deterrent in response to North Korea’s test are unfounded.

“We have no intention of changing our policy that possessing nuclear weapons is not our option,” Mr. Abe said. “There will be no change in our nonnuclear arms principles.”

Security analysts said new pressure to rewrite Japan’s post-World War II pacifist constitution is just one potential result of Pyongyang’s test. A Japanese military buildup, they warn, could spur China to bolster its own arsenal, and set off a regional arms race.

“Given that some people perceive that Japan’s new leadership might wish to reconsider Japan’s nuclear policy, it is vitally important that the United States lead an intense and sustained effort with Japan, South Korea and China to clarify each other’s intentions and policies in ways that avoid any nuclear competition,” according to George Perkovich, a nuclear proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has already conceded that Seoul faces a fundamental review of its decadelong “sunshine policy” of economic and political engagement with the North, in light of the purported nuclear test.

China, for its part, had found North Korea’s combative regime a useful tool in tying down U.S. military assets in the region and preventing the emergence of a pro-U.S. united Korea on its border. Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear test Monday, in the face of repeated warnings by China, presents Beijing with a dilemma of how hard to punish its nominal ally.

Even North Korea faces a new diplomatic headache as a result of its test.

Pyongyang’s tactic of playing its neighbors off one another has been undercut as Mr. Abe, Mr. Roh and Chinese President Hu Jintao have presented a united front in meetings over the past week against Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The three leaders recently had been sharply at odds over such issues as Japan’s World War II record and territorial claims.

Despite Mr. Abe’s assurances, many in East Asia are nervously watching Japan’s internal debate over defense and nuclear policy.

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, according to the Australian newspaper, said at a financial conference in Sydney, “My great concern is that Japan may use the [North Korean test] to move into nuclear weapons itself, eschewing the nuclear protection provided to it by the United States under its umbrella.”

Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Lu said Taipei “fears the nuclear test might trigger an arms race and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, thus undermining the security and welfare of people in the Northeast Asian region.”

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who served in the mid-1980s, this past summer issued a report saying Japan should study the nuclear military option because it could not count forever on U.S. protection from its neighbors.

“There are countries with nuclear weapons in Japan’s vicinity,” Mr. Nakasone said at the time. “We are currently dependent on U.S. nuclear weapons as a deterrent, but it is not necessarily known whether the U.S. attitude will continue.”

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