North Korea's Nukes Worry Japan

This Letter From Asia was written by CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen in Tokyo.

With North Korean now claiming to be a nuclear power, the Japanese are worried. Japan is well within range of North Korean missiles. If North Korea continues its nuclear weapons program, the Japanese know there are some tough decisions ahead — decisions that go to the very nature of what Japan is and how it must change.

First, a touch of World War II history: After Japan lost, the United States imposed a pacifist constitution that made Japan renounce the use of force. Its military — today totaling a quarter-million — is allowed for self-defense only.

Yukio Okamoto, who once advised Japan's top policymakers, tells me that North Korea's nuclear ambitions are changing Japanese minds.

"Japanese will support strongly to beef up our defense capability," says Okamoto. "But I don't think we will go as far as pursuing offensive weapons like missiles capable of crossing the Sea of Japan."

This was also a bit of a mind-changer; In 1998 North Korea staged a test that lobbed a missile over Japan. The Japanese know they are in the cross-hairs of a possible nuclear North.

"Because of the nuclear test, we have a greater fear of nuclear attack," one man told me. "I am scared."

All this plays into the hands of Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who says it's time to end Japan's era of pacifism, time to beef up the military — and time to think of the day when Japan may need to launch a pre-emptive attack against North Korea to protect itself.

But Abe assured parliament that Japan would not, itself, go nuclear. For that level of defense, Japan will continue to trust in its strongest ally, the United States.

Okamoto explains that what is needed is "more strengthening of Japan's security ties with the United States, because, after all, U.S. nuclear capability is the only practical deterrence we have against North Korea."

The Japanese have a rare perspective on the world's nuclear history. Their army was notorious in World War II for its massacres and rapes. The war ended when Japan became the only country ever to become the target of an atomic bomb.

To the Japanese, nuclear war is something real, something that can scar a country forever, which is why at Hiroshima's ground zero, they say a prayer: "Never again."

By Barry Petersen