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Japanese Companies Linked to Illegal Exports of Goods Used to Make Nuclear Weapons

An investigation in Japan is revealing more details about domestic manufacturers that exported equipment that can be used to make nuclear weapons. There is evidence that Japanese technology has aided nuclear programs in Libya, Iran and North Korea.

Manufacturers and trading companies in Japan have long been reported to be participants in the international black market in nuclear technology.

The latest case, involving precision machinery maker Mitutoyo and a Iranian trading company in Tokyo, Seian, alleges that sensitive goods have been exported from Japan for two decades.

Mitutoyo makes sophisticated measurement tools essential for enriching uranium, which can be used for nuclear bombs. The International Atomic Energy Agency found one of its machines in a Libyan nuclear facility nearly three years ago.

Japanese news media say Mitutoyo's equipment was shipped through an international ring run by Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, via such countries as China, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

Defense analysts and Japanese government sources say that Japanese companies also have exported equipment for nuclear programs in North Korea, Iran and Libya.

Among the few willing to speak publicly about these illegal exports is retired Ground Self Defense Force Lieutenant General Naruhiko Ueda. He is now senior executive director of the Japan Defense Research Council.

While most Japanese oppose nuclear weapons, because the country was hit by two atomic bombs in World War II, Ueda says many either look the other way or are ignorant about exports of equipment needed to make nuclear weapons.

"Sometimes the company leader comes not from the science area," he said. "They cannot understand this is bad. So, in that case, these parts will be used [to make] the nuclear weapon in North Korea, like that."

Although there is opposition to nuclear weapons, Japan has a large nuclear power industry. Many of its high-technology companies produce the equipment needed in the industry.

Police have arrested five Mitutoyo employees, including the company president, on suspicion of violating foreign trade control laws.

But analysts say the arrests are unlikely to end these lucrative exports because the penalties are weak.

A Tokyo trading company last week was fined less than $9,000 for illegally exporting a freeze dryer to North Korea. Authorities say it could be used to make nuclear or biological weapons.

General Ueda calls the light penalties an outrage.

"To export some parts in Japan, not so severe, very light. They (the violators) come back again soon. This is a very bad national crime," he said.

Ueda and other analysts say the Mitutoyo case could shame Japanese lawmakers into stiffening penalties, so that convicted company officials go to prison. So far, however, there has been no sign of legislative action to stem the illegal trade.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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