Regional Rivalries and Nuclear Responses Volume II The South Korean Case: A Nuclear Weapons Program Embedded in an Environment of Great Power Concerns

Author/Editor: Bryan Jack


Publisher/Sponsor: Pan Heuristics

Supplier: Defense Nuclear Agency

Report Date: 2/28/1978

Document Number: DNA 001-77-C-0052 … PH 78-02-794-32

Classification: Declassified


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This 1978 report by Bryan Jack is the second volume of a three part report that considers the possible role of nuclear weapons that might be possessed by new nuclear powers in three key regions-the Arabian Sea, Northeast Asia and the South China Sea. This volume focuses on China, Korea and Japan and the particular circumstances facing each country, including: what might influence the decision to acquire nuclear weapons, the kind of weapons systems that might be acquired, possible types of weapons deployment both for deterrence or actual use, the impact on regional security of weapons acquisition and the policies that might be adopted by states in the region and by the United States to deter acquisition or to mitigate the consequences if acquired.


From a security perspective, the stability within a region denotes a balance of military power among adversaries such that the advantages to any country of not threatening or launching an attach – nuclear or nonnuclear – outweigh those of attacking in response to a wide range of shocks or disturbances. This involves a comparison between “doing nothing” and “doing something” when such disturbances occur. More precisely, it implies acting in a manner that is less aggravating to other nations in the region than was the disturbing action. However, doing nothing may cause a serious deterioration in a country’s military or political posture and short of actual conflict, a perception of an unfavorable trend in power might induce political responses that unsettle relations within the region.

History, geography, present political alignments, and military capability all affect regional stability. In considering the possible role of nuclear weapons for countries that do not yet have them, the first step is to identify the incentives for acquiring – or possibly even using – such weapons.

In Northeast Asia, the Republic of Korea has given various indications that is might seek nuclear weapons. However, the impact of any program of nuclear weapons development on its neighbors – particular on Japan –  would affect regional stability and the delicate political balance between the U.S., Japan, and the USSR and the PRC. Furthermore, if its action induces Japan to acquire nuclear explosives, it would affect various balances throughout the world. Given this danger, it is important to examine briefly the elements of stability as they apply generally and to Korea specifically.

It should also be noted that regional stability is typically defined in terms of power relations among neighboring countries, but there can be disagreement about which nations are perceived to be actors in the region. The Untied States, which is normally not thought of as an East Asian power, is very definitely a Western Pacific power and therefore bound to be concerned in developments taking place in the region, or at least in its offshore areas. And the Soviet Union, with the industrial development of Siberia, the prospective completion of a second transcontinental railroad, and its naval expansion into the Pacific, is certainly no longer a European or continental power. The role of the Soviet Union and the U.S. choose to play nears importantly on the balance among countries in the region.

In the future, a marked reduction in Sino-Soviet hostility might be a condition for permitting Chinese moves against Taiwan and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the breaking of relations between the U.S. and Taiwan could have an even greater destabilizing effect on events and actions to the north. (In terms of regional stability, the sets of countries considered in Volume I and III of this study are effectively two halves of a single East Asian region – but too much complexity is introduced in a detailed consideration of more than four or five nations simultaneously).

Throughout this study, the Soviets have been treated as the disrupting rather than stabilizing force. In fact, this may not strictly be true. The Soviets have in the past behaved relatively responsible with respect to spreading the capacity to make nuclear weapons (its nuclear help to China aside). They may well continue to do so. There is no evidence to think that they will fail to do all in their power to inhibit overt spread of nuclear weapons. But there is good reason to believe that their words and possibly some actions may not be consistent with the general thrust of their foreign policy.

First of all, stability is enhanced when it is perceived that a conflict if initiated is likely to extend over a considerable period of time. The need to risk all on a single act of belligerency is likely to produce rash decisions of far-reaching consequence. In a nuclear context, this means that the ability to mount or to defend against an initial attack is not enough. For stability, political cohesion, size of country, and industrial strength generate forces that can be mobilized in the long run. The other actors in Northeast Asia – Japan, the PRC, USSR and the U.S. – meet these criteria for the promotion of regional stability; neither North nor South Korea do.

Regional stability is strongly influenced by the nature of the alliance ties. Viable ones benefit not only the formal members of the alliance but frequently and to varying degrees nonmembers both friendly and unfriendly. Probably the most important factor in causing countries within the region to move rtoward and possibly to acquire nuclear weapons is the lowered confidence in outside guarantees and the weakening of their alliance ties. This is most obviously true of the ROK. The announced withdrawal of U.S. troops and the consequent perceived weakening of the U.S. – ROK defense agreement have been viewed as destabilizing by the Koreans. Nonetheless, there are powerful internal forces working against these shifts as well as for them, suggesting that several alternative patterns that could emerge in the next decade should be considered.

The first possibility would be more or less an extension of present relationships. Bilateral ties would continue between the U.S. and Japan and Korea – as well as with Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia – at a level that provides each with a sufficient sense of security in the Western Pacific. This is not to suggest that these ties would again be as robust as they had been prior to U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; only that at each point in time, doing nothing to change existing ties would appear preferable to changing them. In particular, this presumes that neither China nor Russia would behave sufficiently aggressively to arouse further acute apprehensions and bring about a structural shift. China, as well as the United States, might exert pressure to quash any moves toward acquisition of nuclear weapons. Japan would continue its economic ties with the ROK, possibly based on warmer political relations than exist today, and would assume a broadening political role throughout the region. With this evolution it is possible that no country in the area with the potential to develop nuclear weapons would do more than shorten the lead time for such a program that such a climate would forestall moves by the ROK in particular.  From the U.S. point of view – and probably from that of most of the other nations – this might be the most desirable course; however, its likelihood is now in question.

The second pattern is one that has been widely predicted and underlies much of the analysis in these sections. This rational foresees that Korea and many, perhaps all, of the countries that have the technical capacity to do so would move closer to a weapons program during the 1980s by closing the fuel cycle and stockpiling plutonium, by developing or acquiring delivery systems that would be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and even, possibly, by doing preliminary weapons design and basic research on implosion [*]. They would do so because it would be permitted by the international rules for the use of nuclear energy. Some analysts have also predicted that several countries would go ahead and acquire weapons [**]. Such a pattern is predicated on the reduction of U.S. interests in armed forces being deployed to East Asia and the Western Pacific. Under such circumstances, a crisis in the region, or even outside the region, say in the mid to late 1980s, could cause a scramble for nuclear weapons. As those regional monographs stress, any of these embryonic forces would probably be vulnerable to preemptive attack by the USSR or the PRC. Moreover, isolationist tendencies in the U.S. and perhaps Japan might well be reinforced by such a nuclear spread and this reaction in turn could reinforce incentives to acquire atomic bombs. Korea, in particular, is likely to be left still further exposed.

A third mode of evolution in Northeast Asia could involve a new set of alliance ties. However, it is hard to discern a pattern that would be both politically possible and stable. It has been demonstrated over the past 20 years that countries often will refrain from getting nuclear weapons once they reach the technical level to do so, either through confidence in their security or coercion. In Western Europe, these same factors have been at work in a rather different mix – a sufficient one being the coercive role of the Soviet Union.

The withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from Korea has raised questions in the region about the permanence of the U.S. commitment to Korea. A collective security system, even of the loose and evolving nautre that might emerge in the South China Sea region (see Volume III, p. III-4), appears difficult to create in the North. Yet ROK independence is critical to the stability of the area. What then is the best form in which to underwrite ROK independence if it has neither U.S. forces stationed on Korean soil nor an independent nuclear capability? One possibility is a Japanese-Korean security tie. This si unlikely to be acceptable to the Koreans, and these is little evidence so far that the Japanese would prefer it. Another would be based on the triangular relation among Japan, the PRC and the USSR. It is conceivable that Japan and China could reach an agreement to guarantee Korea’s neutrality [***]. Neither wishes to see a unified Korea under strong Soviet influence. They could presumably each be counted on to see that the other did not step over some defined or implied line in their bilateral relations with Korea. Japan does not want the PRC just across the Tsushima Straits. Koreans would not welcome back the Japanese. It is not easy to conceive of a series of events that could lead such a drastic reduction in U.S. concern in the Western Pacific that this kind of neutrality guarantee could be made without a U.S. commitment as well.

In the fact of potential nuclear proliferation, stability might be promoted by technological as well as political design – design of guidelines for nuclear export policies of the “supplier” nations, acceptance of safer fuel cycles, and the implementation of safeguards that will give reasonable warning of not just an ultimate weapons program but movement along the path toward a future nuclear weapons capacity. Each of these is affected by and affects nuclear power development within a country. These could help in the case of Korea. However, in an era where access to energy has become a matter of high policy concern, measure which seem to affect this access are valued with great wariness and apprehension. Yet the relation of nuclear power development to nuclear proliferation is central to the stability of this region and to the security of the United States.

[*] A. Wohlstetter et al., Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd?  Los Angeles Pan Heuristics, April 1976, prepared for the ACDA.

[**] Lewis A. Dunn and Herman Khan, Trends in Nuclear Proliferation 1975-1995, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Hudson Institute, October 1975. Prepared for ACDA.

[***] For a discussion of the not very encouraging history of great power joint guarantees, see H. Rowen and B. Rowen, In the Face of Nuclear Proliferation, Los Angeles: Pan Heuristics, February 15, 1977. pp. 12-14.

This report was released to the Nautilus Institute under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).