By visiting Hiroshima’s atomic bomb museum in April 2016 and commemorating victims of the 1945 US nuclear attack, John Kerry became the first ever US Secretary of State to do so by way of reconciliation and healing the wounds of those affected by the bombing. This has raised the speculation that President Barack Obama might also make an unprecedented historic visit when he attends the annual G-7 leaders’ summit in Ise-Shima, Mie Prefecture, scheduled for 26-27 May 2016.
The May Summit shall have the G-7 leaders from the seven industrialised countries, plus the 28-member European Union. Kerry’s visit came along with the visits by his counterparts from the Group of Seven (G-7) advanced economies. These seven leaders issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to building a world without nuclear arms. The urgency to make this statement was because of North Korea’s repeated provocations and worsening security in Syria and Ukraine. In the past, Hiroshima hosted numerous international conferences, including the Non-Proliferation Disarmament Initiative in 2015 but this was the first time foreign ministers representing a number of the world’s nuclear powers visited the memorial sites.
Why was the visit important in the context of changing geopolitical situation in the region? The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima by the US on 6 August 1945 and Nagasaki on 9 August that brought the World War II to an end is the only time that nuclear bomb has been used by any country on another. Hiroshima was reduced to ashes and some 140,000 people were killed instantaneously and many more suffering till today because of radiation effects. Since then many more countries have acquired the deadly arsenal but such possessions have only deterred the possessor from actually using because the consequences are all well known. Dangers, however, remain because of some rogue states which have acquired such possessions (North Korea) and might actually use it with deadly consequences. The impact of the Hiroshima experience is so huge in Japan that a majority of the Japanese have turned staunch anti-nuclear and unwilling to tamper with Article 9 of the Constitution that prohibits Japan to go nuclear even at the risk of compromising the nation’s security.
The Japanese government has maintained the Hiroshima Peace Museum as a reminder of the horror that the use of a nuclear bomb can cause to the humanity. It displays the horrific and gruesome effects of the bombing. The photographs of badly burned victims, the tattered and stained clothes they wore and statues depicting them with flesh melting from their limbs can turn any hardened criminals’ eyes go moist. Any visitor to the museum, even pro-nuclear advocates, cannot return without moist eyes after taking a round of these depictions, as this author experienced way back in 1979 during his first visit to Japan though another chance remains eluded during his several subsequent visits to the beautiful country. The Atomic Bomb Dome, the skeletal remains of the only structure left standing near the hypocentre of the bomb explosion and now a UNESCO World Heritage site is another reminder of the sad experience of August 1945.
A former US President Jimmy Carter visited the memorial in 1984, but four years after he left office. In 2008, then Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi toured the museum and memorial park but Kerry was the most senior executive branch official to visit. His comments in the guest book reflected the spirit of Obama’s Prague speech in April 2009. He wrote: “Everyone in the world should see and feel the power of this memorial. It is a stark, harsh, compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons, but to rededicate all our effort to avoid war itself.”
Did Kerry offer any apology for the US use of the atomic bomb when he visited the Peace Park? He did not but he should have if the US is sincere to make the world safer without nuclear weapons, which is what Obama’s top-most priority. But Kerry was careful in mentioning that the idea of his visit was not about the past but to revisit the past and honour those who perished as it was also about the future.
Japan as a colonial power had caused too much pain to the people of Koreas and China before the War. Though Japan time and again has offered apologies to both, the wounds do not heal and both Koreas and China allege that Japan is not sincere while offering apology. Though all the three Northeast Asian countries have moved on in other areas, the shadow of history do not go away. Same could be the case if the US offers an apology to Japan for its act, it is feared. This is because notwithstanding the alliance relationship between the two since the past over seven decades, a majority of Americans still hold the view that the bombing was justified to bring the war to a close and save US lives. In contrast, the vast majority of Japanese hold a counter view. In the last year of office, Obama could do the unthinkable and may decide to pay a visit to Hiroshima, as he did in visiting Havana in March 2016. If Obama springs a surprise and decides to visit Hiroshima, he is going to “face the stark realities of the type of destruction that can be caused to humanity in a future war with nuclear weapons”. There are reports, however, that suggest Tokyo had rejected the idea of an Obama visit to Hiroshima in September 2009.
So, what does the Hiroshima Declaration on Nuclear Non-Proliferation issued by the G-7 foreign ministers on 11 April mean for Japan and the world? Despite much optimism raised following Obama’s Prague speech and the subsequent Nuclear Security Summits, the Declaration was disappointing as it did not make any concrete commitments for the total elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide, though it was replete with pious intentions and stressing dangers of nuclear weapons. The statement only emphasised the importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and called for a ban on test explosions, and urged all states to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty without delay and conditions.
The Declaration termed the leaders’ “commitment to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in a way that promotes international stability” but it also related to the turmoil in Syria and Ukraine and the nuclear program of North Korea. It remained unclear how nuclear weapons issue was related to the fight against the Islamic State and addressing the instability in Ukraine as both issues are absolutely different. Also, if the world powers threaten North Korea with force or nuclear weapons to coerce the North to give up its nuclear program, they are indirectly encouraging the North to be more determined to possess the arsenals as a means of deterrence and for survival. So, such tactics look counter-productive.
Kerry described the museum as “stunning” and “gut-wrenching” and said it was a reminder to all in public life to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. Laudable words but one would wish this reflects in the current US policy. Notwithstanding Obama’s public pronouncement on elimination of nuclear weapons which won him even a Nobel Peace Prize, can he justify why his government is engaged in an unprecedented nuclear build-up? The US is committed to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to “modernise” its nuclear weapons arsenal, which includes creating smaller, “more usable” weapons. This practice is just opposite to what the US preaches to the world.
Despite some reductions in the nuclear weapons arsenals, there are still 15,000 nuclear weapons, of which the US and Russia hold majority of them. The world is getting increasingly unstable with more regional instabilities as new issues such as climate change, water wars, maritime security, terrorism and others pose new challenges. Under the circumstance, nuclear weapons have acquired more deterrence value and eliminating them becomes more difficult. Why the G-7 foreign ministers downplayed the legally binding obligation of the nuclear-weapon states to eliminate their nuclear weapon arsenals defies logic. This could be because three of the G-7 countries – France, UK and the US – have allies such as Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan who enjoy protection of nuclear weapons by their guarantors.
As was expected, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program generated heated debate. The escalating provocations by North Korea, which conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, followed by the launch of a long-range satellite, which many saw as a cover for a long-range missile are real danger that lurks in Northeast Asia and the unpredictability of Kim Jong-un makes this more worrisome. So, for now Kerry’s Hiroshima visit shall remain as a main talking point in Japan and elsewhere as it raises the possibility of Obama making a similar visit in May 2016.