SEOUL -- North Korea's nuclear test on Tuesday is likely to embolden security hawks' calls for nuclear armament in neighboring countries, stoking fears of a renewed arms race in East Asia.
Japan has in recent days displayed a marked shift toward the right, with growing calls for military rearmament amid heightening tensions with China over a group of islands in the East China Sea known as Diaoyudao in China and Senkaku in Japan.
Japan's right-wing politicians have taken advantage of the conflict to call for bulking up its Self-Defense Forces and widening its role under the doctrine of collective self-defense, which Japan's new conservative prime minister Shinzo Abe has been advocating under the label of strengthening the US-Japan alliance. Under the doctrine, an attack on Japan's ally, such as the US, would be considered an attack on Japan itself. It would provide pretext for Japan's Self-Defense Force to be mobilized even if Japan itself is not under attack.
Spurred by nationalism, several right-wing Japanese politicians, including Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, and Toru Hashimoto, the leader of the National Japan Restoration Association, have spoken in favor of a military build-up and the development of nuclear weapons.
Before being inaugurated as Japan's prime minister for the second time late last year, Abe had argued for a revision of Japan's pacifist constitution to allow for Japan's nuclear capability that is "defensive in nature".
During Abe's first turn as prime minister in 2006, Taro Aso, then the foreign affairs minister, and Shoichi Nakagawa, the head of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council, had also spoken in favor of nuclear armament so long as it was the "necessary minimum" for defense.
While talks of nuclear armament have not materialized in South Korea on the scale of Japan, several prominent conservative politicians have raised the need for nuclear arms to protect against the threat posed by North Korea. Chung Mong-jun, a seven-term lawmaker in the governing Saenuri Party, pledged nuclear armament last year during the conservative party's presidential primaries.
"(Our country) must possess nuclear weapons capability in order to protect the people," he said. "The efforts at diplomacy to free the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons over the past 20 years have failed, and this amounts to a failure of our politics. There needs to be an overarching review of our national security policy."
Experts are divided over the prospects of nuclear armament in Northeast Asia. "The key players in the nuclear domino of Northeast Asia are South Korea and Japan," said Cho Dong-joon, a professor in politics and international affairs at Seoul National University. "The nuclear armament of South Korea and Japan would cripple the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the mechanism in place that prevents the spread of nuclear weapons in the world."
Cho added that, considering such upheaval the nuclear armament would cause, the US, Russia, China and other nuclear powers would attempt to prevent it.
But Lee Shin-hwa, an international affairs expert at Korea University, said that while South Korea will remain under the security guarantee provided by the US nuclear umbrella, "Japan, Taiwan and other countries may push for nuclear armament citing North Korea's nuclear test, and this could result in a nuclear domino effect."
Kim Yong-ho, an international affairs professor at Yonsei University, also said that "the nuclear potential of South Korea and Japan is tremendous."
Kim added that if North Korea makes gains in intercontinental ballistic missile technology with help from Iran, then that would pose "a different level of threat" to the US. As such, he added, "there is a possibility of a nuclear domino phenomenon in Northeast Asia."