Japan, Acting to Calm U.S. Worries, Rules Out Building Nuclear Arms

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

TOKYO, Oct. 18 -- Japan "is absolutely not considering" building a nuclear arsenal in response to the North Korean nuclear test, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Wednesday, moments after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated that Japan was protected by the American nuclear umbrella.

Rice arrived here Wednesday on the first stop of a tour through northeast Asia and Russia. Her trip is aimed at allaying concerns and coordinating strategy against the Pyongyang government in the wake of the test.

The question of whether Japan would go nuclear has stoked worries within the U.S. government and increased tensions in the region. Earlier in the day, Aso told a parliamentary committee that while Japan's nonnuclear principles remain unchanged, "it's important to have discussions on the matter."

The ruling party's policy director on Sunday also urged a debate on whether Japan should consider developing its own nuclear deterrent. Japan is the world's only victim of a nuclear attack, and it has consistently refused to allow the United States to store nuclear weapons on its territory. But experts say Japan has a large supply of plutonium from its civilian nuclear power program, giving it access to the material necessary to quickly make the switch to a strategic nuclear program.

In response to a question at a news conference with Rice, Aso said: "There is no need to arm ourselves with nuclear weapons. For Japan's own defense . . . we have the commitment, and that commitment has been reconfirmed by Secretary Rice."

"Japan has answered this question," Rice said. "The role of the United States is to make sure that everybody, including the North Koreans, know very well that the United States will fully recognize and act upon its obligations under the mutual defense treaty" with Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is to meet with Rice on Thursday, also reiterated Wednesday that his government would not discuss building a nuclear bomb. "That debate is finished," Abe testily told reporters.

Speaking to reporters as she flew to Asia, Rice acknowledged that a nuclear arms race was a concern, which is one reason she planned to use the trip to assure Japan and South Korea that they remain under U.S. protection. "I think through doing that we can mitigate some of the potential for a truly destabilizing set of events to take place in the region in response to the North Korean test," she said.

During a speech in Shanghai in 2004, Vice President Cheney warned that, if faced with a reality that North Korea has a stockpile of nuclear weapons, other nations in the region "may conclude their only option is to develop their own capabilities, and then we have a nuclear arms race unleashed in Asia."

South Korea and Taiwan are also considered potential candidates to begin nuclear weapons development.

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