Vice President Joe Biden warned China that the Japanese government may acquire nuclear weapons “virtually overnight” if the threat from North Korea becomes too grave, urging Beijing to do more to curb Pyongyang’s belligerence.
The Vice President’s comments echo those of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who warned that Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons “is going to happen anyway” in controversial remarks issued in March. Japanese government officials and media responded to Trump’s comments much more severely than they have to Biden’s.
“What happens if Japan, who could tomorrow, could go nuclear tomorrow? They have the capacity to do it virtually overnight,” Biden told PBS host Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast Monday. He explained that he made this warning to Chinese President Xi Jinping personally while discussing the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to protect from a North Korean attack, a move that China has condemned vocally.
“When I tell President Xi, you have to understand we got a guy up there in North Korea who is talking about building weapons that can strike, nuclear weapons strike the United States and not only Hawaii and Alaska, but… the mainland of the United States,” he told Rose. “And I say, so we’re going to move up our defense system, and he says no, no, no, wait a minute, my military thinks you’re going to try to circle us.”
Biden suggested that China, a fellow communist country, “has the single greatest ability to influence North Korea.”
Japan has issued a tepid response to the remarks, with Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko telling reporters Friday that Japan simply “can never possess nuclear weapons.” Japan remains the only nation in the world to experience a nuclear weapon attack.
In March, Trump stated that both Japan and South Korea were likely to develop nuclear capabilities due to their access to advanced technology. “It’s going to happen, anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them, or we have to get rid of them entirely,” he said, suggesting that, should the move be inevitable, the United States should do more to curb its defense expenses in Asia protecting wealthy nations.
In response, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida stated that Japan having nuclear capabilities was “impossible,” and national newspaper Asahi Shimbun described national leaders as responding with “bewilderment and unease.
The government of North Korea has behaved with extreme belligerence in 2016, beginning the year with the detonation of what they claimed was a hydrogen bomb and repeatedly launching missiles towards Japan (all have failed to reach their targets). Most recently, North Korea tested what are believed to be two Musudan ballistic missiles, with one reaching the greatest height the nation has yet to achieve on a test.
China responded to the new test by calling for North Korea to “act with caution and refrain from taking actions that may elevate tension on the Korean peninsula.” China recently backed expanded UN sanctions on North Korea, but has condemned U.S. and South Korean defense buildups in response to Pyongyang, claiming that the also put Beijing in the line of fire.
While China has kept its criticism of North Korea tepid and remained its largest trade partner, the volume of that trade has declined significantly. Imports from North Korea dropped 12.6 percent between May 2015 and May 2016, while exports to North Korea fell 5.9 percent in the same time period.