[VIEWPOINT]Casting a nervous eye eastward

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[VIEWPOINT]Casting a nervous eye eastward

While Korean politicians were busy with their domestic mudslinging, in Japan there arose some evil omens that might cast a pall on future relationships among Northeast Asian countries. The Japanese government has taken a few political steps that would work to the same effect. Tokyo has approved a textbook published by Japanese right-wing groups; it contends that Tokto islet belongs to Japan. Separately, Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Liberal Party, remarked that Japan should be armed with nuclear weapons.

The most notable move, however, is that the cabinet endorsed a package of bills in April to give the government greater power to deal with foreign military attacks and ensure the smooth deployment of the Self-Defense Forces. The government has submitted those proposals to the Diet.

The legislative proposal is subject to further changes in details and procedures, but few doubt that the bill will be approved soon. This legislation amounts to an amendment to the postwar pacifist constitution of Japan and gives Japan more freedom to deal with military attacks. That is, Japan is going to re-emerge as a country that can wage a war against its enemies. Under what conditions might the Japanese government take such action? A draft bill on "an emergency situation under military attack from enemy forces" would allow the Japanese government to take military steps not only when a foreign military attack occurs, but also when a situation arises in which such an attack "is predicted." But the yardstick to define when an attack is predicted is somewhat vague.

The updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines approved by the Diet in May 1999 call for the self-defense forces to provide the U.S. armed forces with logistics support during emergencies in areas surrounding Japan. That measure complements the new contingency legislation, and Washington recently issued a statement approving of the new bill. But we remain suspicious that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, like his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon, is taking advantage of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States that gave hard-liners an opening to press their own agenda. The United States should consider whether it is on the wrong path toward establishing peace in Northeast Asia, prompted by the lure of short-term gains by cutting down its own security costs.

What steps will Japan take? The remark by Ichiro Ozawa that Japan should develop nuclear weapons is one answer. Mr. Ozawa said that some Japanese intellectuals and opinion leaders approve of the idea, and that Japan has the capability to develop such weapons. Japan could develop thousands of nuclear warheads overnight; a consensus of the people and a political judgment is all that it would take to produce them, Mr. Ozawa said. Such a judgment and public consensuses can be formed quickly.

Chinese diplomats protested strongly against Mr. Ozawa's "provocative" remarks. Mr. Ozawa seemed to back off, saying that building solid ties between China and Japan is important, since it would be a tragedy for both nations should Japan be armed with nuclear weapons. It may be that Mr. Ozawa was just trying to twist China's tail a bit.

But his words give Koreans three things to consider.

First, if Japan were a nuclear power, that could lead to changes in the Japan-U.S. military alliance and a deterioration of relations between China and Japan. Japanese conservatives who have persistently called for the overhaul of the constitution that renounces war would further work to make Japan join the list of "strong military nations armed with nuclear weapons" because it is already the second-largest economy in the world.

Second, the more Japan aspires to equip itself with nuclear weapons, the more acute the arms race in Northeast Asia would become. This could bring tragedy to the whole region and destroy the peace here that was an important part of making Japan a dominant trading nation.

Third, Japan should take the necessary steps to address demands by its Asian neighbors to share a common historical understanding. That is more important than building up its military potential in compliance with the American demand. Japan should accelerate the reforms advocated by the Koizumi administration if it feels threatened by China's economic growth, which may indeed threaten Japan's leading role in the region.

I was thinking of ending this column by saying that whether or not Mr. Koizumi visits the Yasukuni shrine in August would be a signal of the choice Japan would make. But a day later I saw reports that Mr. Koizumi had already visited the shrine. Where is Japan headed?


The writer is a professor of political science at Kookmin University.

by Kim Young-jak

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