Jeffrey LewisN Minus Six Months

We were discussing the origin of the widespread claim that Japan is “six months” from a bomb—and the earliest scholarly reference I could find was Richard Halloran’s Chrysanthemum and Sword Revisited: Is Japanese Militarism Resurgent. Halloran argues:

Japan also has the financial and technical resources to make nuclear weapons. A Japanese strategic thinker said years ago, and recently reaffirmed it, that “Japan is N minus six months.” He meant that Japan could build a nuclear weapon within six months of a political decision to do so.112

112. Conversations with the author in 1976, 1990 and 1991.

It is worth noting that the claim is made in passing; Halloran is making the point that Japan has the capability but not the desire to go nuclear. Whether it is six months or three years, doesn’t really matter to him.

It seems, though, that the “six month” idea dates to the mid-seventies—at a time when John Endicott’s careful study, Japan’s Nuclear Options, suggested a much longer timeframe.

I’ve been reluctant to speculate about why Sankei received this particular leak. Sankei is an extremely conservative paper, which I remember carrying some headline grabbing stories about extensive cooperation between DPRK and Iranian nuclear programs (I’ve posted two such stories in the comments).

Anyway, a reader familiar with Japanese media and its relationship with the Japanese government offers these thoughts:

With regards to the recent Sankei Shimbun article (and comments on the potential for Japan going nuclear) there’s one aspect to this story that should be mentioned.

The report, supposedly “leaked” to Sankei and citing the 3 – 5 year timeline for going nuclear, was most likely passed on to that newspaper by government officials deliberately.

Sankei is Japan’s most conservative publication, with strong ties to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the defense establishment. Although Sankei is the smallest national daily, the other papers are quite used to Sankei “scooping” them on these types of stories, since it’s an open secret that they have a direct line to the top levels of the government.

When the original Sankei article first came out, many of my colleagues and I interpreted this as a clever way for the Japanese government to send a subtle message to China. While publicly rejecting nukes, this is one way to say to China “the clock’s ticking” meaning that Beijing has to get serious about disarming North Korea, and fast.

China monitors virtually all Japanese news media, and even obscure articles are routinely translated into Chinese and often find their way into Chinese papers and websites. The Sankei article didn’t make a huge splash in the U.S., but it definitely raised eyebrows in China.

And PM Abe’s policy on this point is in contradiction. While publicly assuring China that Japan won’t go nuclear, he’s commissioning studies into the idea and encouraging public debate.

I am by no means an expert on proliferation, but I know how strongly Japanese citizens loathe North Korea. And the government has been taking a much stronger line than in the past (something the public has been urging for decades).

Should the six party talks fail and North Korea increases its arsenal, with China twiddling its thumbs, then I think it is highly likely that Japan will develop its own detterent, even if in secret a la Israel (although it’s unclear yet how they would work around the NPT).

But if they do it out in the open, then it won’t be too difficult to convince their public while NK is holding 10 or more weapons with delivery capability. China’s arguments against will be extremely weak, given NK’s history of terrorism and threats.


  1. Jeffrey Lewis

    Here are two Sankei stories on Iran-DPRK nuclear cooperation.

    Sankei: DPRK, Iran Prepare To Carry Out Joint Nuclear Development Detonator TestsTokyo Sankei Shimbun (Internet version-WWW) in Japanese 15 Jun 04 Morning EditionSANKEI SHIMBUNTuesday, June 15, 2004Journal Code: 2949 Language: ENGLISH Record Type: FULLTEXTDocument Type: Daily Report; NewsWord Count: 358

    (FBIS Report)

    Tokyo Sankei Shimbun (Internet version-WWW) carries in its 15 June Morning Edition an unattributed report entitled “Six Iranian Experts Visit North Korea for Joint Nuclear Development, Testing.”

    The following translation was provided by the Office of Translation and Media Analysis, US Embassy, Tokyo from page 2 of the hardcopy of Sankei Shimbun’s morning edition and is found to be identical to the report carried in the Internet version:

    “It was learned that North Korea and Iran are preparing to carry out joint detonator tests in view of joint nuclear development. A military source knowledgeable about the situation on the Korean Peninsular revealed the clandestine program yesterday. At the recent G8 Summit, participants expressed strong concern over nuclear development by the two countries. Strong opposition from the international community is likely if North Korea and Iran jointly carry out nuclear testing.

    The source noted that six delegates from Iran entered North Korea in May. The delegation was comprised of physicists and computer experts. The plan is to implement neutron irradiation tests, using North Korea’s facilities, for about six months starting around July.

    Neutron irradiation testing is aimed at monitoring the fluctuations of dense neutron in various methods, such as continuous irradiation or short-time irradiation. Nuclear fission occurs when neutron collides with fissile materials, such uranium and plutonium.

    Data collected through the testing are indispensable for making nuclear bombs. The testing requires equipment for accurate measurement and protection walls. According to the same source, Iran has no domestic technology for computer-processing such data. It has apparently decided that cooperation with North Korea, which is likewise carrying out nuclear development, is necessary. The plan is also advantageous to the North as it can obtain testing data and use them for nuclear development.

    It has already been pointed out that North Korea and Iran are said to be cooperating with each other in the area of ballistic missiles. If the rumored joint testing were carried out, it would indicate that the two countries are also in cooperation over nuclear development.”

    (Description of Source: Tokyo Sankei Shimbun (Internet version-WWW)—daily newspaper published by Fuji Sankei Communications Group)

    Compiled and distributed by NTIS, US Dept. of Commerce. All rights reserved.

    AFS Document Number: JPP20040615000013City/Source: Tokyo Sankei Shimbun (Internet version-WWW)Descriptors: FBIS ReportFBIS Document Number: FBIS-EAS-2004-0615Geographic Names: East Asia; Near East & South Asia; Northeast Asia; South Asia; Japan; North Korea; IranNewsEdge Document Number: 200406161477.1_b55a000b37b5f994Original Source Language: JapaneseRegion: East Asia; Near East & South AsiaWNC Document Number: 0hzel450233hjtWNC Insert Date: June 16, 2004

    World News Connection®Compiled and distributed by NTIS. All rights reserved.Dialog® File Number 985 Accession Number 190900614

    Sankei Reports Iranian Nuclear Experts Secretly Visited DPRK Thrice in 2003Tokyo Sankei Shimbun (Internet version-WWW) in Japanese 11 Jun 03 Morning EditionSANKEI SHIMBUNWednesday, June 11, 2003Journal Code: 2949 Language: ENGLISH Record Type: FULLTEXTDocument Type: Daily Report; NewsWord Count: 521

    Reference: 1. jpp20030611000014 hong kong afp english 0106 gmt 11 jun 03 (FBIS Translated Text) It was learned on 10 June through an informed source on Korean Peninsula issues that nuclear affairs specialists from Iran, which is suspected of developing nuclear weapons, secretly visited North Korea three times between March and May. It is believed that while North Korea taught Iran how to respond to inspections by an international agency, North Korea might have received funds from Iran. North Korea and Iran’s coming together on the nuclear development issue is likely to draw international attention regarding the two nations’ cooperation and concrete measures, since the United States had labeled both nations as part of the “axis of evil.”

    According to the informed source, the first Iranian delegation visited North Korea on 1 March. Two nuclear specialists stayed for several days and met with North Koreans responsible for nuclear development. In April, one specialist visited North Korea, followed by two others in May. Two representatives from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who visited in the beginning of May, stayed in North Korea for about 10 days.

    After North Korea signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1992 to receive inspections, it only allowed limited inspections, while promoting its nuclear development program at the same time.

    Regarding Iranian specialists’ visits to North Korea, the informed source said: “The aim might be to receive know-how from North Korea on how to respond if the nation accepts an investigation team.”

    On Iran’s nuclear development suspicions, its government has refuted them, saying that it has promoted the research and development of atomic power for peaceful purposes within the framework of international treaties.

    In 1998, Iran succeeded in the launching experiment of “Shahab-3,” an “independently developed” mid-ranged ballistic missile (with a firing range of approximately 1,300 kilometers). However, this missile is said to have an extraordinary similarity with North Korea’s “No Dong 1” missile and that North Korea’s export of technology is deeply suspected. The informed source said, “There may have been discussions not only on countermeasures for inspections but also on cooperation toward nuclear development.”

    Regarding Iran’s nuclear development issue, a statement seeking Iran to completely fulfill the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to unconditionally accept UN inspections was released at the meeting of the leaders of the major industrialized nations (Evian Summit) in the beginning of this month. At the IAEA board meeting to be held on 16 June, IAEA Director General Muhammad al-Baradi’i will report the results of the inspections held in February at Natanz in central Iran and Arak in western Iran. At the end of last year, the United States expressed strong concerns that the two areas have “secret underground facilities for nuclear arms development” based on photographs taken by an intelligence satellite.

    (Description of Source: Tokyo Sankei Shimbun (Internet version-WWW)—Internet version of daily newspaper published by Fuji Sankei Communications Group) THIS REPORT MAY CONTAIN COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. COPYING AND DISSEMINATION IS PROHIBITED WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE COPYRIGHT OWNERS. Inquiries regarding use may be directed to NTIS, US Dept. of Commerce.

    Copyright © 2003 NTIS, US Dept. of Commerce. All rights reserved.

    AFS Document Number: JPP20030611000016City/Source: Tokyo Sankei Shimbun (Internet version-WWW)Descriptors: FBIS Translated TextFBIS Document Number: FBIS-NES-2003-0611Geographic Names: Near East & South Asia; East Asia; The Americas; South Asia; Northeast Asia; North America; Iran; Japan; North Korea; United StatesNewsEdge Document Number: 200306121477.1_61cc0011ba7579a6Original Source Language: JapaneseRegion: Near East & South Asia; East Asia; The AmericasWNC Document Number: 0hgdcuu03dfvq9WNC Insert Date: June 12, 2003

    World News Connection®Compiled and distributed by NTIS. All rights reserved.Dialog® File Number 985 Accession Number 172450665

  2. MTC (History)

    If the Japanese government wanted to send a message to the Chinese government that “the clock is ticking”, it would hardly:

    1) leak information about a report that predicts a 3-5 year start up time for a missile-mounted nuclear warhead

    2) release the story to the Sankei Shimbun.

    The Sankei Shimbun is the most militant national daily. It is frequently a mouthpiece for a strengthening of Japan’s defenses. However, in terms of support of the current conservative Cabinet, the Sankei has been pipped by the Yomiuri Shimbun, which has been almost sycophantic in its coverage of the prime ministership of Shinzo Abe.

    If the Abe government had wanted to send a message to a foreign power, it would probably have done so via the Yomiuri.

    Instead, the publication of the story in the Sankei indicates a bona fide leak has taken place—a realist counterstrike at politicians like Foreign Minister Taro Aso or LDP Policy Research Council Shoichi Nakagawa who have been mumbling about the need to discuss Japan’s developing its own nuclear deterrent.

    The report as described finds that the development of a plutonium weapon deterrent would be a major undertaking in terms of money, manpower and construction. As the Sankei article stated clearly, a Japan pursuing an independent nuclear defense would be not be able to meet the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear program for many years. Should the decision for nuclear breakout lead the U.S. to withdraw its promise of nuclear protection of Japan on non-proliferation grounds, Japan would be defenseless against Continental Asian nuclear blackmail.

    The most likely source for this leak is a career bureaucrat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though even Ministry of Defense officials might want to squelch speculation about a Japanese nuclear deterrent in order to prevent the need to discuss a potential Japanese breakout scenario with U.S. defense officials.

    If any message is being sent to China, it is a reaffirmation of Japan’s dependence on the U.S. alliance for every facet of Japan’s security.

    P.S. Thank you for the cartoon. It is good to see that pre-1941 Japanese had a well-developed sense of sarcasm.