TOKYO, JAPAN —
As North Korea and the United States increase rhetoric on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, long-held taboos are being broken in neighboring Japan – the only country to have suffered nuclear bombardment, at the end of World War II.
Analysts say the debate over whether Tokyo should develop nuclear weapons of its own is moving from the far right fringes to the political mainstream.
A Japanese Defense Ministry White Paper this week echoed reported concerns within the U.S. intelligence community, that Pyongyang has achieved the key final step of miniaturizing nuclear warheads – enabling it to deliver atomic bombs.
Former Japanese Defense Ministry adviser Narushige Michishita, now an analyst at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says the country would have minimal warning in the event of a nuclear missile launch.
“It’s quite likely even that North Korea can attack Tokyo with nuclear weapons today. And so if missiles are launched, it will reach Japan within 10 minutes," said Michishita. "From the time we detect the missile until the time it impacts on Japanese territory, we would have six or seven minutes.”
North Korea is believed by some observers to have more than 200 so-called "No Dong" missiles capable of carrying warheads that put Japan well within range. An attack on a crowded city like Tokyo would put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
WATCH: North Korea Threat Tests Japan's Nuclear Taboo
Japan’s constitution allows military action only in self-defense. Some lawmakers want that definition extended to allow Japan to acquire preemptive strike capabilities to counter North Korea.
Hawkish conservatives go further, among them Finance Minister Taro Aso. He has argued that Japan should keep open the option of developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The country already has a large stockpile of nuclear fuel from its civilian power program.
The issue is openly debated in South Korea. But polls show just five percent of Japanese want their country to be a nuclear power.
Security analyst Kuni Miyake, with Tokyo’s Canon Institute of Global Affairs, said, “We face the threat from North Korea. But it doesn't mean we will react with nuclear weapons. I don’t think we will go nuclear in the foreseeable future. Even if South Korea might go, we will be the last.”
Narushige Michishita questions whether nuclear weapons would offer Tokyo diplomatic leverage.
“If we possess nuclear weapons and say we would retaliate if North Korea used nuclear weapons against us, is it credible? I don’t think so. And North Korea is not trying to attack us with nuclear weapons. They would be threatening us to do so in order to prevent us from assisting South Korea. That’s their objective," said Michishita.
This week marked the anniversary of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. The commemorations were clouded by renewed fears of war on the Korean peninsula.
“There still are nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Tension is mounting when it comes to the international situation surrounding nuclear weapons. Strong fears are spreading that nuclear weapons may be used in the not-so-distant future,” Nagasaki Mayor Taue Tomihisa said in a speech Wednesday to mark the 72nd anniversary of the city’s destruction.
At the same ceremony, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated the country’s long-held position: “Here in Nagasaki, a city that continues to pray for perpetual peace, I reaffirm my commitment to realizing a peaceful world without nuclear weapons."
Some analysts question whether that commitment would be tested if Japan came under attack. For now, the likelihood of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons appears remote.