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An unstable corner of Asia

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On Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled, each by a single low-yield US atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have never again been used in combat.

Fifty-seven years after the shocks that ended World War II, Japan remains the most antinuclear-weapons nation on earth. But even there, a debate about the wisdom of Japan's remaining nonnuclear has begun to surface in the press. It is accompanied by official assurances that no change in Japan's nonnuclear policy is contemplated. But a private discussion in Japanese political circles has been under way for some time. Who can blame them?

In a world where Japan's neighbors, possibly including North Korea, have nuclear weapons, Japan has reason to wonder about its future. Adding grist to the mill was the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, which seemed to foresee a future in which the development and testing of new nuclear weapons by the United States was a serious option.

The bargain Japan accepted in buying into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear-weapons state was that the nuclear states would try to eliminate their nuclear weapons and prevent the further spread of these weapons. That hasn't happened. Instead, India and Pakistan have become de facto nuclear-weapons states and the Bush administration, under the pressure of the war on terrorism, has dismantled the sanctions on those two countries. Talks with North Korea are stalled and the future of the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea's nuclear-weapons program is in doubt.

The US is trying to solve too many problems in a piecemeal fashion. Instead of dealing with all the moving parts as separate issues, we should see Japan, China, Russia, and Korea as part of an interacting system of states that needs to be dealt with as a whole.

For years, the need for a multilateral Northeast Asian security mechanism has been apparent. The idea never attracted enough sustained political energy at the top of any government, including America's, to make the idea work. Instead, the US and Asia played at it on the fringes of existing Asian-Pacific forums, which were mainly focused on economic issues.

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