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A Japanese-Style Star Wars?

By Brian Bremner Will Japan go nuclear? That question has produced one of the more interesting sideshows in Asia in recent weeks. On the main stage, of course, are Pyongyang's provocative actions such as plans to fire up its nuclear weapons capability, kicking out U.N. weapons inspectors, and suggesting that it'll soon start test-firing medium and long-range ballistic missiles.

North Korea is surely a massive security threat to Japan's $4.5 trillion economy and citizenry. But it's also true that Tokyo, should it deem to, could pull together a credible nuclear-weapons deterrent in a matter of months. It has tons of stored plutonium, the knowhow to quickly convert that to weapons-grade material, and a civilian rocket industry that could be employed for military uses in a snap (see BW, 1/20/03, "Why Japan Just Might Build Nukes").

The odds are next to nil that will happen anytime soon. But another military option is far more likely. And it would be a mind-blowing development for Japan, reshaping the contours of Asia's geopolitical map: Tokyo might sign off on a multibillion theater-missile system jointly developed with the U.S. Then things could get very interesting -- or downright scary, depending on your point of view.

TEAM EFFORT. Ever since North Korea successfully test-fired its Nodong-1 missile, which has a range of up to 800 miles, it has become clear as a morning in Kansas that Japan is extremely vulnerable. Pyongyang test-fired a longer-range missile called the Taepodong in 1998. That was unnerving to Tokyo defense types because they didn't have a clue it was coming, the missile's trajectory took it over the Japanese archipelago, and Japan needed to rely on the U.S. for intelligence confirmation.

Since then, the Japanese Diet has taken a series of steps to upgrade the country's intelligence capability and deepen its knowledge and expertise of missile-defense technologies. Since 1999, both the U.S. and Japan have been jointly sketching out plans for a viable and largely naval-based missile-defense system that could defend Japan's homeland and U.S. troops based there from an attack by either North Korea or China.

The strategists have looked at designs for possible propulsion systems, as well as infrared-sensor technology to identify incoming warheads from decoys. During the Gulf War, Patriot air-defense missiles had mixed results in nailing Iraqi Scuds. But the technologies and performance have improved mightily since then. A system employed on Japanese Aegis-class destroyers combined with U.S. naval assets and some ground-based missiles sometime in the middle of this decade isn't a pipe dream.

HOLES IN THE UMBRELLA. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his government have been quick to point out that Tokyo has agreed to only a joint research effort at this point. The go-ahead for actual development and deployment is a long way off. Japanese Defense Agency Chief Shigeru Ishiba got his knuckles rapped a while back for suggesting that taking the missile-defense option was only a matter of time.

Still, consider that Japan is now in the process of launching spy satellites. And Washington is keenly interested in getting the Japanese on board to share the cost of a system to protect troops in East Asia and to create closer military ties with this key, if somewhat reluctant, ally.

The rub is that such a move would have mind-boggling implications for Japan. Would a credible missile-defense shield enhance Japanese national security or undermine it? Already, both Pyongyang and Beijing have blasted Tokyo for even conducting preliminary research with the U.S. It's not unconceivable that such a system might prompt North Korea and China to ramp up missile production and target more sites in Japan, in the hope of punching more holes in the shield.

MUM'S THE WORD. Though Japan is rich enough to foot the bill for such a missile-defense system, it would mark a dramatic and long-range expansion to Japanese defense spending, now about $40 billion a year. That's a tough sell given Tokyo's monster budget deficits. The U.S and Japan likely would have to mesh their command and control systems and operational methods to make sure an integrated system works. And that would create all sorts of foreign-policy headaches.

Given all that's at stake for Japan -- basically, its entire post-war security setup -- you would think these issues would be getting a full airing in the Diet. Alas, they aren't -- at least not yet. But the latest threat from Pyongyang is a reminder that at some point soon Japan will have to make a fateful policy call to shoulder the cost and risk of building a missile-defense shield. It lives in a very dangerous neighborhood after all.

One thing's for sure: Washington will pressure Tokyo to take the plunge, even as others in the region will view any such move with great suspicion. Forget the fictions about Japan going nuclear for the moment. The real game to watch is missile defense. Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

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