How Japan Could Go Nuclear

It Has the Smarts and the Resources, but Does Tokyo Have the Will?

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in March, 2017  Toru Hanai / REUTERS

In a speech on September 6, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, warned that Japan might respond to the growing nuclear threat from North Korea by developing nuclear weapons of its own. Japan has long had the means to go nuclear, thanks to its sophisticated nuclear power industry. But since agreeing to a security treaty in 1951, Japan has relied on Washington’s “extended deterrence”—the promise that any attack on Japan will trigger a retaliatory attack from the United States. The Japanese government’s confidence in that commitment has fluctuated over the last half century, and Biegun is not the first U.S. official to fret that Tokyo will lose faith in it altogether.  

On three occasions over the past 50 years, Japan weighed the merits and disadvantages of developing nuclear weapons. The first delicate moment came in the 1960s, after China began nuclear tests. Then, during the 1990s after the Cold War, Japanese officials worried that Washington might feel less resolved in defending Japan from Moscow’s nuclear might. Most recently, Japan faced a major new challenge to its west after North Korea developed nuclear weapons in 2006. At each juncture, however, Japanese security strategists concluded that it made more sense to rely on the extended deterrence provided by the United States. In exchange, Japan presented itself to U.S. policymakers as a linchpin for peace and stability in Northeast Asia, a regional hub for the deployment of U.S. troops and military equipment (as it was during the Korean and Vietnam Wars), and a bulwark against China.  

Today, the U.S. security guarantee looks less and less reliable. This summer, President Donald Trump repeatedly called the security treaty unfair and reportedly mused in private about canceling the treaty altogether. He has tolerated North Korean missile tests that threaten Japan. And during his election campaign, he suggested that it might even serve Japanese and South Korean interests if both nations developed nuclear weapons. There are still powerful historical, cultural,

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