It’s Time to Revise the ROK-U.S. Nuclear Agreement

It’s Time to Revise the ROK-U.S. Nuclear Agreement

Washington’s treatment of South Korea’s security concerns is unfair and inconsistent.


Japan began its nuclear program in 1954 for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, simultaneously demonstrating its commitment to nuclear latency. A year later, Japan gained the right to reprocess waste. Tokyo decided that it would adopt a policy of not possessing nuclear weapons for the time being while maintaining the economic and technical capability to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Finally, in the 1988 revision, the United States gave Japan advance consent for constructing facilities for reprocessing, plutonium conversion, and storage in Japan. As per the mutual agreement, Japan has stored approximately fifty tons of stockpiled plutonium, which could be converted into 6,000 nuclear warheads. The former prime minister’s comment in 2002 that Japan could go nuclear in a short period was not a bluff.


This nuclear potential has allowed Japan to become a nuclear threshold state and accept regular severe inspections led by the IAEA. This was a bold measure, confidently taken by Japan, based on the reassurance that it is capable of going nuclear shortly in a life-or-death situation.

So, it can be inferred that there are two reasons why a long-standing nuclear debate has barely affected Japan compared to South Korea amid the nuclear escalation of authoritarian states. First, the rigorous anti-nuclear sentiment among the Japanese public due to the nuclear trauma since World War II holds Japan back from having nukes. Secondly, Japan feels less urgent or vulnerable than South Korea does due to its latent nuclear capabilities through the U.S.-Japan nuclear agreement.


Given that both ROK-U.S. and Japan-U.S. alliances are at the core of Washington’s strategy in Northeast Asia, it is unfair that South Korea’s nuclear capabilities are treated very differently than Japan’s. Since South Korea and the United States pledged to strengthen nuclear cooperation, revising the nuclear agreement is an essential follow-up process for Seoul’s more responsible global role in U.S. strategy.

As a critical player in the Indo-Pacific, South Korea must demand the revision talks at an early stage, and the United States should answer positively. Nuclear latency would not only enhance the alliance, but it would also remarkably appease the mainstream pro-nuclear public opinion and security anxiety in South Korea. Reconsideration of Washington’s discriminatory and harmful stance toward South Korea’s nuclear latency thus serves American interests.

Yulgok Kim is the Secretary General of the ROK Forum for Nuclear Strategy (ROKFNS). He tweets at @rokfns.

Image: Shutterstock.