Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s remarks suggesting support for the nuclear armament of Japan and South Korea have sparked intense conversation in the media of both nations. Many believe the absence of America in Asia will lead to war, with Japan fearing Chinese aggression, South Korea fearing Japan, and both hoping North Korea’s strength does not match its words.
Trump has made multiple statements throughout the campaign that indicate he is uncomfortable with the decades-long status quo of a robust American military presence in Asia. Most recently, during a town hall discussion on CNN, he argued that America “can’t afford to do it anymore.”
“At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea,” he argued, adding, “I would rather see Japan having some form of defense, and maybe even offense against North Korea, because we’re not pulling the trigger.” He added that South Korea should also begin contributing more to its own defense and brushed off concern about a nuclear-armed South Korea, suggesting that “it’s going to happen, anyway.”
The White House has dismissed Trump’s suggestions of arming both nations with nuclear weapons as “ridiculous.”
In Japan, the nation’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper describes the reaction as “bewilderment and unease.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refused to comment on the remarks, calling any statement he could make “improper.” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida rejected the possibility of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons as “impossible.”
Asahi quotes a Foreign Ministry official on background as stating, however, that he does not trust Trump has invested sufficiently in experienced advisers on Asian foreign policy. “It seems he only has experts on Middle East affairs and terrorism-related issues among his diplomatic brain trust but no analyst specializing in Asian matters,” the official said.
Another official, quoted in the Mainichi Shimbun, told the newspaper Trump’s remarks “are not worth commenting on.” A separate official also dismissed the comments as an attempt to draw attention: “I think he made the remarks knowing what kind of comments will be covered (by the media).”
At least one Japanese politician has interpreted the remarks as a sign that Japan should seriously consider acquiring nuclear weapons in the event that Trump is elected and rapidly withdraws American troops from Japan. “Trump has questioned the validity of the current Japan-U.S. alliance … We may already need to start debate on whether we should keep staying away from nuclear weapons or have them as a deterrent,” the governor of Osaka, Ichiro Matsui, said earlier this week.
“What do we do if America’s military strength (in Japan) disappears?” he added. “Wishful thinking doesn’t get us anywhere.”
Some Japanese media have contended that Trump is not alone in alarming Japan. In an editorial, the Nikkei Asian Review, an English-language subsidiary of Japan’s Nikkei publication, suggests that Hillary Clinton has also exhibited signs of “isolationism” and that American displeasure at Asia could hurt Japan given China’s expansionism in the East and South China Seas. “China appears intent on establishing itself as the region’s hegemonic power. Other Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, need a strong U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region from both an economic and security perspective,” the editorial concludes.
Concerns in South Korea are similar to those in Japan, save for one key difference: Some in South Korea actively fear a nuclear Japan will herald in another imperial era, with Japan returning to its pre-WWII militaristic instincts. Given Shinzo Abe’s moves to expand Japan’s military capabilities in the face of Chinese aggression, the editors of The Korea Times write that Trump’s “isolationism” could embolden Japan. “Making the equation more complicated is the tendency of the U.S. to take an isolationist policy, as is well illustrated by Donald Trump … who claims that Korea does not pay its fair share for its defense, indicating his willingness to withdraw U.S. troops,” the column reads.
“Few appear to be listening to the echoes of ‘Tenno Heika Banzai’ (Long live the emperor!), the battle cry of the imperial Japanese soldiers charging with bayonets fixed on their rifles during their expansion period,” the editorial continues. “Historically, a militarily strong Japan has always been a problem, threatening to throw the region into flux and posing more challenges to Korea.”
Unlike Japan, Korean media encouraged the government to seek nuclear weapons before Trump’s comments. The Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s largest newspapers, ran an editorial calling for nuclear armament in January, as a response to North Korea’s claims it had detonated a hydrogen bomb. “North Korea has invaded this country in the past and has not hesitated to provoke Seoul repeatedly since the ceasefire agreement was signed in 1953. If it obtains nuclear weapons, the South faces a bleak fate,” the column reads. It continues, challenging America’s commitment to protecting Seoul:
Would China come to the rescue if the North launched a nuclear attack against South Korea? Would the U.S. step in to protect Seoul? Judging by Washington’s inaction in the military crises in the Ukraine and Syria, it would probably respond only after Seoul has been turned into a pile of smoldering ashes.
South Korean political experts are divided. “Even though he is a politician of a third country, we have reached a situation where we cannot take no action,” a government officials told the JoongAng Daily anonymously. The newspaper notes that “Koreans are therefore worried about what to expect from Trump’s continued popularity during the electoral race, as his statements indicate he is open to overturning the two countries’ existing military alliance and bilateral relations.” It cites a foreign vice foreign minister Choi Young-jin, who questions whether Trump understands his own policy stances: “Trump’s remarks do not show a sense of introspection on what their results would bring about; he does not know the gravity of what he says.” Yet at least one legislator has called for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons in the past year.
The leaders of both nations met with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the global Nuclear Security Summit currently underway in Washington D.C. All three vowed to commit to containing North Korea and cooperating on sanctions and other measures to minimize the threat of North Korea attacking its neighbors. All issued statements reiterating their support for nuclear non-proliferation.