[OUTLOOK]A new kind of nuclear threat

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[OUTLOOK]A new kind of nuclear threat

Late last month, the 55th Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs was held in Hiroshima, Japan. Hiroshima was chosen as the venue in order to reconfirm the vision of a nuclear-free world; the participants were standing on humankind’s first “ground zero,” 60 years after the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I attended the conference at the invitation of Japan’s Pugwash group. More than 170 people from more than 40 countries around the world participated, and engaged in five days of heated discussion. Last year’s Pugwash Conference was held in Seoul.
During the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were in a fierce nuclear arms race, the Pugwash Conference served as a great force for moving world opinion, speaking for the conscience of mankind.
Following up on the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto that advocated a nuclear-free world, 22 nuclear scientists who agreed with the declaration met in a small Canadian village named Pugwash in 1957, and began a dialogue that transcended their nationalities.
That was how the conference came into being. In recognition of its work to reduce nuclear armaments, the Pugwash organization, jointly with founding member Joseph Rotblat, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.
But lately, because of the world’s indifference to the nuclear threat, the Pugwash Conference has been fading away.
As was noted in the conference’s Hiroshima Declaration this year, not only did mankind miss an historic opportunity to abolish nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, but the nuclear threat has gotten worse, with more parties possessing nuclear arms, the development of small nuclear weapons and the proliferation of nuclear material. Nevertheless, people around the world are paying less attention to the issue, which is a worrisome fact. Regrettably, there were not many Korean participants at this conference.
Even in Japan, the only country where atomic bombs have been dropped on human beings, it is evident that people’s anti-nuclear awareness, which is symbolized by Hiroshima, is showing signs of diminishing. Japan’s major mass media showed little interest in the Pugwash Conference this time.
Such social indifference can result in the weakening of what one might call the public’s “nuclear allergy.” Since the North Korean nuclear problem arose, as well as the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens, the possibility of Japan itself developing nuclear weapons has ceased to be a taboo in Japan.
In 2002, influential Japanese politicians, including Ozawa Ichiro and Abe Shinzo, made a controversial series of remarks on the possibility of Japan’s revising its “three non-nuclear principles” and becoming a nuclear power.
One should not assert that Japan has a secret plan to develop nuclear arms; that is mere conspiracy theorizing. The problem is the growing mutual distrust in Northeast Asia concerning nations’ latent ability to develop nuclear weapons.
Indeed, as was discussed at the Pugwash Conference, a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho-mura in Japan’s Aomori prefecture is to begin trial operations at the end of this year.
If the plant starts full-scale operations in 2007, it will produce eight tons of plutonium annually, which is enough for 1,000 nuclear weapons. Japan, then, will become the only non-nuclear power to possess large-scale fuel reprocessing facilities. Japan is one of a few countries that have a stockpile of plutonium. As of 2003, it had 40 tons.
The possession of plutonium is strictly overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and international law allows Japan to have it. But politically, it could provoke nuclear proliferation and the outflow of nuclear material.
From this perspective, in May the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States publiished a letter signed by 27 experts, including former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, asking Japan to halt operations at the Rokkasho reprocessing facilities.
In the inter-Korean Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula of 1991, South Korea abandoned not only the development of nuclear weapons but also the possession of nuclear reprocessing facilities. As the Pugwash Conference was going on, the fourth round of the six-party talks were being held in Beijing. One key to the solution to the North Korean nuclear problem is reported to be international confirmation of the declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Given this opportunity, it is time for South Korea to take the lead in forming a framework for regional denuclearization, to enhance the transparency of development of nuclear weapons and production of nuclear material, and to build mutual trust not just on the Korean Peninsula, but in all of Northeast Asia.
A new nuclear arms race or proliferation of nuclear weapons among the surrounding countries would be a threat to us, and there is always a risk that a sense of relative deprivation or inequality could provoke the “nuclear sovereignty” argument in South Korea.
I expect that South Korea and Japan, the two non-nuclear nations in Northeast Asia, will carry out closely-related “cooperative non-nuclear diplomacy.” It is urgent that both nations are able to overcome the mutual distrust that was manifest last year when the suspicions over South Korea’s nuclear weapons development were raised.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at Rikkyo University in Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Lee Jong-won

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