Make 2023 a Historic Year for Disarmament and Non-proliferation: A test for Japan’s ability to have its voice heard as chair of the Security Council and G7

Consulting Fellow, RIETI

1. Nuclear Weapons as Protection for Future Generations?

Amid the escalating wave of missile test firings by North Korea, the world is witnessing truly spine-chilling events. When Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, visited a missile test site and when he attended a photo opportunity to celebrate a successful test with those credited with contributing to the success, he was accompanied by a young girl. According to some media reports, the girl is his daughter. The sight of a girl with an innocent smile, who could in the future serve in an important position in North Korea, attending events associated with the development of weapons of mass destruction, has come as a fresh reminder that militaristic values will be inherited by future generations of leaders in that country.

According to an analysis by the Japanese Defense Ministry, North Korea has already succeeded in developing nuclear weapons that are sufficiently small to be used as missile warheads and possesses the capability to attack Japan with nuclear missiles. Armed with that capability, North Korea test-fired missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, at an unprecedented frequency in 2022. The missile tests are not merely intended as a show of power or an act of provocation but are also for the purpose of developing the technology. North Korea is presumed to have further advanced its ballistic missile technology through this multitude of tests, which is a very serious problem for Japan’s foreign policy and national security. In Japan, there may be the sense that despite this situation, missiles actually raining down on the country is an unlikely prospect. However, there is always the risk of an accidental attack or a launch failure that results in a missile landing in Japanese territory. Even without actually using nuclear weapons, North Korea can threaten the use of nuclear weapons as a dreadful diplomatic weapon.

2. Importance of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Policy

North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development is only one of the various threats Japan is facing. Discussions in 2022 on strengthening the country’s defense capabilities pointed out the severity of the security environment surrounding Japan. . While it is necessary to strengthen defense capabilities to protect Japanese territories, the Japanese government must also remember to once again call for global attention to another initiative that Japan has been promoting for the sake of international peace—disarmament and non-proliferation. Disarmament refers to reducing existing arsenals of weapons, while non-proliferation means preventing weapons, their production, and the materials and technologies that may be used to develop and manufacture them from falling into the hands of the wrong parties (such as rogue nations and terrorists). In the case of nuclear weapons, for example, calling for nuclear weapon states to reduce their nuclear arsenals is a nuclear disarmament initiative. Preventing countries such as North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and from importing the goods necessary for nuclear weapons programs, is a non-proliferation initiative. Efforts to create a safe international environment through such diplomatic initiatives are as important as efforts to strengthen defense capabilities.

A country without nuclear weapons like Japan being exposed to the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles is a prime example which illustrates the importance of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. It is a terrifying situation for Japan that a neighboring country continues to develop weapons of mass destruction despite strong restraining pressure from the international community. Missiles are being launched without warning and falling into the sea where fishing boats are operating or flying over innocent citizens’ homes. When a North Korean ballistic missile flew over Japan last October, triggering an evacuation alert, the incident received wide media coverage in the United States and other countries as well. Should Japan become a country that teaches children evacuation procedures in fear of missile attacks, or pursue the path of development while maintaining peace? This is a challenge that Japan should address by marshaling the full scope of its national resources, including defense and diplomatic capacities.

3. Making 2023 a Milestone Year in the History of Disarmament and Non-proliferation

2023 is a very important year for Japan’s diplomacy. The country begins its term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and also serves as the chair of the G7. At a time when the Security Council is said to be in a somewhat dysfunctional state, Japan must demonstrate its own worth as a nation under circumstances that are quite different from the ones that the world faced in 2016-2017, when the country last served as a non-permanent council member. In particular, upon joining the Security Council in January, Japan assumed its chairmanship of the council.

As the G7 chair, Japan will host the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in May. Naturally, attention is focused on what kind of message Japan can send on that occasion with respect to disarmament and non-proliferation. Among the conferences related to non-proliferation, there will be a meeting of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which brings together like-minded governments, international organizations, and civil society groups.

Holding the chairmanships of the Security Council and G7 provides a perfect opportunity and setting for Japan to send a strong message regarding disarmament and non-proliferation. Furthermore, with respect to disarmament and non-proliferation, Japan must encourage other countries to implement necessary measures by playing an active role in forging international opinion instead of merely paying lip service to the initiative. As previously mentioned, this will also be part of the effort to improve the security environment surrounding Japan. Hopefully the Japanese government can take advantage of holding the diplomatic megaphone on the stage of international diplomacy, and use 2023 as the opportunity to articulate the country’s hope for disarmament and non-proliferation around the world.

January 5, 2023

March 1, 2023