• 17 July, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

South Korea’s Nuclear Program: End to Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Arunav Singh Rawat
Sat, 06 May 2023   |  Reading Time: 3 minutes

On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea resulting the beginning of The Korean War. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) established the UNC under the United States to counter and restore peace in the Korean peninsula. During the war more than 16 nations provided support to either side and 5 sent medical help including India to South Korea. In 1953 US decided to join hand with South Korea to form an alliance and They called it “the relationship forged in blood”.

“One of the first phrases I learned in Korean when people talked about the US-Korea relationship, was ‘the relationship forged in blood.’ I remember how moved I was by that, by the passion which people used in talking about it. Our relationship, as you all well know, goes further back even than that” – 20 March 2009, U.S. Ambassador in the Republic of Korea.

US-Korea relation was the most important element to the South Korean Nuclear Program. It all starts with the formation of USFK in 1953.

Formation of USFK 

After the Korean War (1950-1953) South Korea and the United States agreed to a military alliance in 1953 and the US formed USFK in July 1957. United States Forces Korea or USFK is a sub-unit of US Indo-Pacific command. It was established under US Korea joint army with over 24000 US soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors deployed in South Korea. US first deployed their nuclear weapons in South Korea in 1958.

In 1970, USA said to South Korea that it is going to withdraw USFK from South Korea. That was the first time when South Korea though of an independent nuclear program. Further in 1971, South Korea decided to purchase plutonium reprocessing from France But, under US pressure France eventually decided not to deliver a reprocessing facility to South Korea. South Korean president Park Chung-Hee first mentioned its nuclear weapons aspiration during the press conference on 12 June 1975. South Korea’s nuclear weapons research program effectively ended on 23 April 1975, with its ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Post Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons, commonly known as NPT, is an international treaty whose objective is to resist the spread of nuclear weapon’s technology, promote peaceful usage of nuclear energy and to achieve a nuclear disarmament around the world. A total of 191 countries signed the NPT including South Korea, but South Korea decided to continue its nuclear ambitions and the South Korean government insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

In 1982, scientists at the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute performed an experiment in which they extracted several milligrams of plutonium. Although plutonium has uses other than the manufacture of weapons, the United States later insisted that South Korea to stop this production. In exchange, the US agreed to transfer reactor technology and give financial assistance to South Korea’s nuclear energy program.

The Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was an agreed action item between South Korea and North Korea signed on 20 January 1992. The declaration was issued February 1992. The last meeting was held in April 1993, but the declaration never entered into force and both nations started their programs again. Further in 2000, scientists in South Korea enriched 200 milligrams of uranium of 77% enrichment using laser enrichment. This event and the earlier extraction of plutonium went unreported to the IAEA until late 2004. Finally in 2004, South Korea reported these experiments to IAEA resulting the IAEA to launch a full investigation into South Korea’s nuclear activities. In a report issued on November 11, 2004, by IAEA, the IAEA described the South Korean government’s failure to report its nuclear activities a matter of “serious concern” but accepted that these experiments produced a very small amounts of weaponizable fissile material.

Status in 2023

South Korea is an active working partner of NATO but is not a part of NATO group. Due to less sense of nationalism, birth-rate of less than 1.5% and small military South Korea requires US army to maintain peace and safeguard it from Noth Korea. US has stationed more than 28000 troops in South Korea and in return to this South Korea pays around 8.5 billion dollars per year to US.

A 2023 Poll, found that over 76.6% of South Koreans support nuclear weapons. In recent years, North Korea stepped up efforts to develop long-range nuclear weapons to undermine joint US South Korean defence systems. South Korean citizens were asked whether they think the US would be willing to take the risk of a nuclear war with the North to protect the South, 52% percent of respondents said that they strongly believe that US will defend South Korea.

On 28 May 2023, South Korea president went to Washington for dinner on the occasion of 70th US-Korea friendship and to improve few conditions of Washington Declaration. Finally, Washington has agreed to periodically deploy US nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea and involve Seoul in its nuclear planning operations. Finally In return, South Korea has agreed to not develop its own nuclear weapons. This periodic deployment will also help US to keep an eye on China and use its soft power of southeast Asia.


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