Eisaku Sato, the prime minister of Japan from 1964 to 1972, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his contributions to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons by announcing the three principles that prohibit his country from possessing, manufacturing or importing nuclear weapons.
But NHK revealed in 2010 that Sato sought the help of West Germany in 1969, a year after he announced the principles, to help Japan obtain nuclear weapons.
One former Japanese Foreign Ministry official who attended the meetings back then told NHK that Tokyo wished to "leave room" to allow Japan to have nuclear arms and "overturn" the conditions that had been placed on the country by others. After the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty went into effect in 1970, Japan began to build nuclear power plants on condition of peaceful use and soon became the world’s No. 3 in nuclear energy production after the U.S. and France.
But Tokyo's nuclear policy, which was spearheaded by proponents of military re-armament including former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, always kept in mind the possibility of nuclear armament. As a result, the economic and technological capacity to produce nuclear weapons remained a key policy for the country. Japan already has 30 tons of plutonium and could thus produce hundreds of nuclear weapons.
Following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, there have been increasing public demands to shut down the country’s nuclear power facilities. This has made it impossible for Tokyo to hide its policy of maintaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
Amid mounting calls for Japan to scrap its nuclear plants, Shigeru Ishiba, who once served as defense minister and is a ranking member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said publicly that Tokyo must not relinquish its ability to produce nuclear weapons within a year once it decides to do so, which constitutes its "suppressive" power.
In fact, 38 percent of LDP candidates who ran in last year's general elections and 77 percent of ultra-conservative candidates favor nuclear armament. A recent survey of Japanese university students shows that around half support it.
Japan's appetite for nuclear weapons, in spite of its painful history of having been on the receiving end of atomic bombs, has been stoked by North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Even South Koreans are starting to wonder whether their country should acquire nuclear weapons. A Gallup survey announced last Wednesday showed 64 percent of the public supporting the acquisition of nuclear weapons, with only 28 percent against.
Another survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and unveiled on the same day showed 66.5 percent of respondents supporting South Korea's development of nuclear weapons. With North Korea threatening South Korea with "final destruction," such developments in the South are hardly surprising. But some progressives here who have condoned North Korea's nuclear weapons program by saying it is for "self-defense" and intended to pressure the U.S., are now moving to quash any talk of nuclear armament in the South, condemning the idea as "anachronistic" and "populist."
Now they are saying that the U.S. nuclear umbrella makes it unnecessary for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. Since when did they place so much trust in the Seoul-Washington alliance?
At this point, it is important to keep such discussions alive. Public sentiments will be effective not only in dealing with North Korea but also in negotiations with China and the U.S. If public discussion here continues, Beijing will have to think about the risk of a nuclear domino effect that could influence Taiwan's defense posture, and Washington will have to listen closely to Seoul's needs and ensure the nuclear umbrella works.
South Koreans must have the courage to publicly discuss the prospect of the country acquiring nuclear weapons. This will give it the strength over the long term to suppress North Korea's and Japan's nuclear ambitions.
By Chung Kweon-hyun from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk