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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #128: March 23, 2004

Japan Guilty of Nuclear Proliferation?

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

Japan has become an ardent supporter of the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which aims to crack down on the weapons trade with a specific focus on preventing the sale of weapons of mass destruction. Japan is the only Asian nation on a list of eleven that have joined the initiative and Prime Minister Koizumi has been active in trying to promote the program. The focus of PSI is to monitor "rogue"states such as Pakistan, which has been implicated in the trade of nuclear technology to Libya and North Korea. However, recent developments and media reports indicate that officials should also explore the proliferation activities of "non-rogue"states, including Japan.

The international media reacted with considerable astonishment to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovery of a "pilot scale uranium conversion facility"that was made by Japan and sold to Libya in 1984. The conversion plant is capable of enriching weapons grade uranium. That Japan would be involved in such a transaction surprised almost everyone. The news agency Reuters headlined with, "a company from Japan, the only country to be attacked with an atomic bomb, sold Libya machinery in the 1980s that Tripoli used in its unsuccessful attempt to build a nuclear weapon" (12 March 2004). Newspapers have quoted experts characterizing the technology sold to Libya as "essential"to the production of nuclear weapons (Financial Times, 13 March 2004) and diplomats have described the sale as a "flagrant example"of the failure of export controls in keeping such equipment from the hands of "rogues and terrorists"(Birmingham Post, March 13 2004).

All indications are that the Japanese government knew of and potentially approved of the sale. An unnamed diplomat quoted by the Associated Press stated that, "the parts for such a plant are so large and expensive, it would have been difficult to ship them out of the country without the knowledge of the Japanese government" (AP, 13 March 2004). More alarming is the admission by the Japanese company responsible for the sale that it sold about ten units of this equipment annually during the 1980's.

Thus far, the Japanese government has defended its record stating that the conversion plant was not illegal because the transaction occurred before international restrictions were implemented. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the IAEA has requested the Japanese government to look into the background of the plant to "help unravel clandestine trade in nuclear weapons materials and technology”, however, the Japanese government has refused saying "no investigation will be carried out"because the transaction was not illegal at the time (Asahi, 13 March 2004).

This alleged response by the Japanese government is extremely worrying and stands in stark contradiction to Prime Minister's pledge under the PSI. Sadly, the Japanese government has never been transparent on arms exports. Since the beginning of this year, the Japanese government has been hinting of lifting the ban on arms sales and exports put in place in 1976 in order to open the way to jointly develop the missile technology with the U.S. Furthermore, on January 13, 2004, Yasuo Fukuda (Chief Cabinet Secretary), was quoted by numerous news sources as saying that "Japan, which has excellent technologies, may become a big exporter of arms"if the ban were lifted. Although he followed this statement up by stating that, "our position is that Japan shouldn't sell arms and shouldn't support the proliferation of missiles”, his country's record does not support this claim.

In addition to the sale to Libya, the Yomiuri Shimbun has reported that ever since "catchall guidelines"were implemented by Japan in April 2002 to stop the proliferation of missile technology, ten Japanese trading companies, including several owned by Korean residents of Japan, have been identified fifteen times trying to export weapons related material to North Korea. This article published on May 20, 2003, went on to quote experts as stating that, "most of North Korea's weapons related equipment is Japanese made." Equipment found in a North Korean spy boat sunk by Japanese maritime troops in December 2002 supports this statement, a considerable amount of high-tech equipment made in Japan was found on-board.

International condemnation and attention has focused on the role of so-called "rogue"states in proliferating nuclear technologies and weapons related material, however, the evidence provided above indicates that so-called "civilized"and "responsible"nations charged with safeguarding the peace and security of the world have also participated in this trade. That Japan, the only nation to experience two nuclear attacks and constitutionally renounce war and the threat or use of force as a sovereign right helped to proliferate the world with nuclear weapons is particularly alarming and worthy of reprimand. Over the past year, the U.S. backed by allies such as Japan has gone to war in Iraq under the justification that Saddam Hussein was threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction (still not proven). Another country, North Korea, has been placed under considerable strain and sanction as it faces even more serious accusations. Considering that Japan has exported technology considered to be "essential"by some experts in order to build nuclear weapons and missiles, it is only appropriate that a thorough investigation into the nature of these transactions take place. We must condemn all companies and individuals involved in these acts and work to prevent all countries from participating in this trade. The Japanese public should be made aware that the threat posed by North Korea is thus, to some extent, part of Japan's own doing.

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