Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Markos Kounalakis: North Korean dreams, Japanese nightmares

Published: Wednesday, May. 14, 2014 - 12:00 am

Heads of state are sometimes treated to fireworks displays when visiting overseas. North Korea promised more than that during President Barack Obama’s recent swing through Asia. It threatened to detonate a nuclear device during his visit to South Korea.

Just 35 miles downwind from the North Korean border, Obama was being taunted by an aggrieved, impoverished and rogue nuclear power. It was a dark fantasy scenario reminiscent of a James Bond plot. Thankfully, the threat remained only that, with no accidental or intended explosions.

Nukes raise concerns everywhere, defining military strategies and diplomatic relations worldwide. Defense doctrines are based on these weapons’ capacity for mutually assured destruction. But there is one place where these weapons systems have extra special meaning.

Japan. The only country ever attacked by atomic bombs.

While the entire world shudders at North Korea’s current cavalier approach to atomic testing, Japan quakes.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the touchstones of Japanese historical fears, where estimated World War II victims were well over 100,000. America’s fading debate around the bombings was rekindled at the end of the 20th century with the Smithsonian’s controversial Enola Gay bomber exhibition. While a distant American memory, the effect of those bombings on the psyche and politics of Japan are permanent and ever present.

For years, contemporary Japanese officials recognized popular sensitivity to all things radioactive and publicly denied that U.S. nuclear-armed vessels entered their waters, though secretly permitting them. Added to the citizenry’s general nervousness regarding nuclear arsenals, the recent civilian Fukushima atomic power plant meltdown forced the Japanese back on high emotional alert for all things fissionable.

It was easy to see that Japanese public jitteriness back in 2006, when North Korea surprised the world and tested its first nuclear device. That blast announced that nearby Pyongyang possessed new destructive and offensive capabilities. It was a regional strategic game changer.

People in San Francisco’s Japantown relived their greatest fears that October day in 2006. The two-story Kinokuniya bookstore had TV screens in its windows that ran Japanese NHK television feeds repeatedly showing atomic test footage; the newscasters’ demeanor was grave. It was not only a big story that day, it was the only story.

Standing outside the store, watching the news reports of North Korea’s new bomb, a small group of Nisei – Japanese Americans – gazed at the screens with ashen faces, immediately understanding the new dangers for Japan and the world. They stood transfixed, watching in silence. Some of them had been in California’s World War II internment camps. They all belonged to a generation that read the novel “Black Rain,” a popularly serialized and translated Japanese tragic saga of a young woman exposed to Hiroshima’s 1945 nuclear fallout.

Without diminishing Japanese suffering, it is also important to note that victims abounded in that war. Japanese brutality was notorious and scarred a generation of valiant American warriors who fought in the Pacific theater.

Asian tensions and contemporary fears are partly driven by a complex relationship between Japan and the Koreas – rife with memories of occupation, “comfort girls,” civilian kidnappings, airspace missile incursions, revisionist school textbooks and shrines to war criminals.

North Korea is a state unbound by treaty or temperament when it comes to nuclear weapons. Elsewhere, the same is also true for Iran, a country on the verge of building the bomb. But Israel’s security concerns and tight Washington relations help highlight American sensitivity to Iranian intentions. North Korea’s advanced capabilities and threats, on the other hand, are sometimes popularly misunderstood and often caricatured.

Despite the goofy haircut, insane racist comments and wild rumors about despotic ruler Kim Jong-un’s feeding his uncle to the dogs, U.S. policymakers know North Korea is no joke. Northern troops actively face about 30,000 American soldiers in South Korea.

Obama just reassured the Japanese and South Koreans of America’s security commitments. Elsewhere, as importantly, he continues to negotiate for nuclear controls with Iran in order to prevent another unanticipated shock, as when George W. Bush had to confront North Korea’s new explosive reality in 2006. One more nuclear weapons-capable nation in the world – this time in Central Asia – would further destabilize an already inflamed Middle East.

If Japan is a nervous nation based on its experience with mass extermination, Israel, with its own history, is no less nervous, fearing an already hostile Iran will get the bomb.

The world needs to root for successful U.S.-Iranian arms control negotiations to achieve a less threatening Tehran. The consequences are potentially too dire. For Japan and Israel, the big bang is more than a theory.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

Read more articles by Markos Kounalakis

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