The actual and potential development of nuclear weapons technology in the area of North-East Asia (Korean Peninsular and Japan)

Publication - 29 April, 2005
This Review examines the North-East Asia civil nuclear infrastructure of nuclear power reactors, fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants and, more generally, how the nuclear know-how might be deployed to procure sufficiently high quality materials to build up a nuclear weapons arsenal.

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Executive summary: This Review examines the civil nuclear infrastructure of nuclear power reactors, fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants and, more generally, how the nuclear know-how might be deployed to procure sufficiently high quality materials to build up a nuclear weapons arsenal. Applied to countries of the North East Asia region, the findings are that the present non-nuclear weapons states, the Republic of (South) Korea and, particularly, Japan are each capable of establishing an effective nuclear weapons arsenal on the basis of their technological know-how and high technology and industrial infrastructures. However, in terms of access to sufficient quantities of the specialised materials, especially the highly refined fissile highly enriched uranium (U-235) and plutonium (Pu-239), because of its broad ranging civil nuclear programme Japan has access to large quantities of these, albeit safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, whereas South Korea does not have any significant stocks of either fissile material because of the relatively narrow range of its civil nuclear programme confined, as it is, essentially to nuclear power electricity generation and the fabrication of unenriched nuclear fuel.Comparisons are drawn with developments in the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea which is known to have extracted fissile plutonium from nuclear fuel irradiated in its Yongbyon reactor and, moreover, it has publicly declared its intention to procure, and may have already done so, a nuclear weapons arsenal. Indeed, at this present time the Yongbyon reactor is shut down, possibly for extraction of another batch of irradiated fuel for reprocessing into plutonium which, if correct, could become a regular procedure as North Korea regularly harvests plutonium with which to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal at a rate 1 to 3 atomic warheads (A-Bombs) per year.Timescales to full development and possession of a nuclear arsenal are difficult to predict: North Korea may have already developed and produced a viable fission device (A-Bomb), compact and robust enough to deploy against its near neighbour South Korea or further afield against Japan. On its part, with its almost self-sufficient civil nuclear power and fuel industry, Japan should be recognised as a ‘virtual’ nuclear weapons country, with the practicable capability of bringing together within a few months the design and fabrication technologies to the nuclear materials that it already has in its possession. Such is Japan’s high state of industrial development and prowess, it is more likely might capable of moving straight to the development of a thermonuclear (H-Bomb) warhead of much greater destructive yield that the A-Bomb design believed to have been developed by North Korea.South Korea does not, at present, have (or so it declares) sufficient stockpiles of fissile material (either highly enriched uranium and/or plutonium) to move quickly to the nuclear weapon fabrication stage, although given the incentive it might be able to illegally procure these via the now established international trading nuclear materials network, thereafter becoming nuclear weapons capable in, say, six to nine months. If, at some time in the near or interim future, the North and South Koreas were to unify, then access to the fissile materials known to be in the possession of North Korea which, when married to the high technological infrastructure of South Korea, might be expected to produce a number of nuclear devices within, like Japan, six to nine months. South Korea has a large quantity of fissile plutonium under store but laying dormant in its own nuclear reactor ponds, to release this plutonium South Korea would have to acquire fuel reprocessing technology and it would have to contravene the IAEA safeguards and the prior consent rights that the United States places over the most of the South Korean nuclear fuel.Of course, to pose a nuclear weapons threat a means of delivery must also be developed. It is established that North Korea has proved missile systems that might provide suitable delivery platforms for nuclear warheads, striking into South Korea or beyond with its Taep’odong-1/2 vehicles to Japan. It is not known, although it is believed that Japan could adapt a variant of its M-5 vehicle to a ballistic delivery role although, that said, it might choose instead to depend upon the US Patriot PAC-3 missile defence system which should be fully operational in or about 2007. On its part, South Korea possesses somewhat limited range NHK-1/2 missiles capable of striking into but not completely covering North Korean territory, although the recent space programme involving satellite launch technology should be capable of technology transfer across to a medium range ballistic missile design.So, with the continuing cross-border rivalry between South and North Korea, a sometimes bellicose North Korea articulating aggression to Japan, and wider regional security threats possible from either of or between the two established nuclear armed nations of China and the Russian Federation, the whole North East Asia region is and is likely to continue to be in a state of anxiety and instability. In response, it would not be unexpected for South Korea and Japan both, independently, to respond to this geo-political situation by striving to improve their readiness to acquire nuclear weapons should the need arise, a notion that no doubt, both governments will strenuously deny.

Num. pages: 18