News / Asia

Rising Voices in S. Korea, Japan Advocate Nuclear Weapons

An analyst monitors from a computer screen in the control room of the international nuclear test monitoring agency CTBTO, in Vienna, February 12, 2013.
An analyst monitors from a computer screen in the control room of the international nuclear test monitoring agency CTBTO, in Vienna, February 12, 2013.
North Korea's claim this week to have successfully conducted a third underground nuclear test is prompting some in South Korea and Japan to advocate possessing their own such weapons. 

Chung Mong-joon, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, June 2, 2010 file photo.Chung Mong-joon, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, June 2, 2010 file photo.
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Chung Mong-joon, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, June 2, 2010 file photo.
Chung Mong-joon, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, June 2, 2010 file photo.
South Korean lawmaker Chung Mong-joon of the governing Saenuri (New Frontier) party made such a remark during a meeting of his colleagues from the National Assembly, comparing the situation with North Korea to “a gangster in the neighborhood buying a brand-new machine gun” and trying to defend oneself with merely a pebble.

Chung is no fringe politician. He is the country's wealthiest lawmaker through his controlling shares in the Hyundai Heavy Industries group.

The JoongAng Ilbo, major South Korean newspaper, terming North Korea's latest test an existential threat to Seoul, questions whether the country should arm itself with nuclear weapons and if the United States will ultimately protect it if Pyongyang were to threaten a nuclear attack.

A spokesman for the opposition Democratic United Party, Park Yong-jin, criticizes the ruling party for failing during the past it is not possible to solve the problem of North Korea's nuclear program with a South Korean nuclear armament.

Another option is reintroducing U.S. nuclear weapons onto the Korean peninsula. 

But South Korea “is not considering bringing in tactical nuclear weapons right now because the priority is to make North Korea give up its nuclear armament,” says Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok.

The nuclear debate is not limited to South Korea.

Japan also concerned

Former four-term Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, now a member of parliament, and co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party, has openly stated his country should have nuclear bombs to counter China, North Korea and Russia.

Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo February 14, 2013.Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo February 14, 2013.
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Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo February 14, 2013.
Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo February 14, 2013.
In a VOA interview just hours after North Korea announced its latest nuclear test, Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera commented that his country's pacifist constitution restricts Tokyo “when it comes to having nuclear weapons” and thus strengthening the U.S.-Japan security alliance is the key response.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, is among those advocating revision of Article 9 of the constitution which prohibits Japan from maintaining a war potential.

Getting China's attention

Some international observers contend the pro-nuclear statements from Seoul and Tokyo are in part intended to get the attention of policy makers in Beijing.

“I'd really like to think that that's really what's happening is that their trying to make a political statement to try to get China interested in dealing with the problem,” says
Carl Baker, director of programs at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bi-partisan U.S. think tank. “Ultimately the politicians in Seoul and Tokyo believe that the only way we're going to get North Korea really interested in not pursuing nuclear weapons further is by having China tell them to stop.”

Non-Proliferation Treaty

Baker, a former political and economic analyst for U.S. Forces Korea, cautions that any moves by South Korea or Japan to initiate a nuclear weapons program would not find approval in Washington.

“It'll be received very negatively because we have, of course, always ensured South Korea and Japan that we provide an extended deterrent capacity to them,” he says. “There is the Non-Proliferation Treaty which requires people who don't possess nuclear weapons to not possess nuclear weapons. For South Korea and Japan to basically disregard the treaty would be a very bad step.”

Both countries are protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and host thousands of American troops and several major military bases.

Despite that, South Korea and Japan in past decades appear to have considered clandestine nuclear weapons development.

Secret programs

A secret South Korean program under a “weapons exploration committee” during the dictatorship of the late President Park Chung-hee existed in the 1970s. His daughter, Park Geun-hye, is to be inaugurated as president February 25, succeeding Lee Myung-bak, who was limited to a single five-year term.

The International Atomic Energy Agency in 2004 concluded that South Korean scientists, in previous years, had produced a very small amount of fissile material that could have been placed in a weapon.

South Korea's government at the time contended it had not authorized the experiments.

Japan reportedly undertook, in the 1960s, a secret study on building nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata in 1974 stated Japan certainly had such a scientific capability. In 2006, then foreign minister Taro Aso repeated that assertion and argued Article 9 did not prohibit Japan from having nuclear weapons for self defense.

Aso would later become a prime minister and is currently the deputy prime minister and finance minister.

Both South Korea and Japan each have dozens of commercial nuclear power plants - a potential source of ample fuel for such weapons.

South Korea wants revision of its atomic energy agreement with the United States to allow Seoul to reprocess spent fuel to use in future fast breeder reactors and reduce its stored nuclear waste. Washington has resisted altering the pact amid fears that the fuel could be used for nuclear weapons.

Talks on the agreement are expected to be held after the new Park administration takes office.

In Japan, a former overseer of the country's atomic energy program told VOA, on condition he not be named, that he has been approached by several influential lawmakers asking him how quickly the country, with its highly advanced technology, would be able to construct a viable nuclear weapon.

Officials in Tokyo and abroad have been quoted anonymously in the past as saying the answer to that question would be six months or less.

Youmi Kim in the VOA Seoul bureau contributed to this report.

  • An extra edition of a Japanese newspaper was delivered reporting North Korea's nuclear test, in Tokyo, February 12, 2013.
  • South Korean protesters burn a North Korean flag following a report of the nuclear test conducted by North Korea, in Seoul, South Korea, February 12, 2013.
  • Japan Meteorological Agency's earthquake and tsunami observations division director Akira Nagai points to a spot on the map showing the quake center during a news conference in Tokyo, February 12, 2013.
  • South Korean soldiers check military fences as they patrol near the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, in Paju, north of Seoul, February 12, 2013.
  • A screen grab of the Nuclear Test Facility site in North Korea, via Google Maps satellite view.
  • South Korean soldiers monitor computers at the Seoul train station following a report about a possible nuclear test conducted by North Korea, February 12, 2013.
  • A video grab from KCNA shows the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket launching at North Korea's West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control center in Cholsan county, North Pyongang province December 12, 2012.
  • North Koreans celebrate the successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang December 14, 2012. The sign reads: "Let's glorify dignity and honor of great people of Kim Il Sung and of Korea of Kim Jong Il in the world!"

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 3
    Next 
by: Pedro
February 19, 2013 2:06 PM
If China continues to disrupt the world's attempt to punish North Korea's erratic behaviour, S.korea & Japan should arm themselves with nukes. At least until N.korea gives up its nuclear ambitiions.

Anything short of a full embargo against N.Korea is too lenient!

Obviously, the last thing China wants to see is nuclear armed Japan, so by continuously helping N.Korea, they will only be punishing themselves in the near future...


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
February 18, 2013 2:21 AM
During the WWII, nukes were used first by the winner of its developing race. At that time, the purpose of using atomic bombs included not only punishing opponent but confirming its power of destruction. Now it is proved that nukes have enough power to kill hundreds of thousand of innocent citizens in a flash. Who could launch such awful arms as it is apparent they also would get counter attack with nukes? Who could be the second, North Korea? Iran? Pakistan? Russia? or US?


by: Kanaikaal irumporai
February 17, 2013 11:44 AM
This means that the wider world, that still believe in eradicating nuclear weapons, should consider self imposed sanctions, boycott on the individual plane, against companies like the ones like MR. Chung Mong Joon's Hyubdai. This is a move in disguise to arm themselves with deadlier weapons, that can and sure will be used against the US and others in a Perl-harbor like attack. If they go ahead on their own, like the Indians did and the North-Koreans and the Mullahs in Tehran trying to do believing that any sanctions are short lived and will eventually be lifted,they fear, that their business would collapse dues to sanctions, that's why they choose this brilliant path.


by: Tom Gillilan
February 16, 2013 8:47 PM
"Baker, a former political and economic analyst for U.S. Forces Korea, cautions that any moves by South Korea or Japan to initiate a nuclear weapons program would not find approval in Washington."

Washington is a failed government structure incapable of protecting its own citizens from foreign invasion and conquest. The politics of Washington is the politics of a loser.


by: Anonymous
February 16, 2013 7:41 PM
North Korea isn't a threat to the US yet, but could be in the future, and they keep threatening to destroy our cities and so on and so forth. Obviously, they're leaving us with no choice but to take off and nuke them from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.


by: Mike Havenar from: New York City
February 16, 2013 6:16 PM
So what's the Plan? Are policymakers going to wait until this declared and implacable enemy of the United States has 10-megaton bombs and precision ICBMs, before they take out their nuclear facilities and teach the North Korean leadership, with a nuke or two, that the nuclear path is a dead end for them?


by: Percy Pepper from: UK
February 16, 2013 5:08 PM
"Chung is no fringe politician. He is the country's wealthiest lawmaker through his controlling shares in the Hyundai Heavy Industries group."

He's in politics to help the little guy. The fact that HHI are heavily involved with the nuclear industry is irrelevant, he just want's to make sure that all the little guy feel nice and safe from the evil North while they live out their short minimum wage life in the service of HHI.


by: Wes from: United States
February 16, 2013 11:45 AM
"...questions whether the country should arm itself with nuclear weapons and if the United States will ultimately protect it if Pyongyang were to threaten a nuclear attack. ..."

Maybe. But only within the first six months following a presidential election; after that, not a chance. The six month window might open up a little bit with a lame duck president, but not much.


by: Nohu from: Japan
February 16, 2013 8:20 AM
I can't understand why people think that more nuclear weapons are needed for deterrent. I think it's political way for the peace, but there is no humanity. Do not forget Nuclear weapon's purpose is just only killing many many people. There is no meaning making nuclear weapons. And people also do not forget that The United State of America is only country that used nuclear weapon for human. So it's very crummy that America posses nuclear and prohibit other country from having and testing it. As a Japanese , We must tell the truth the fear of nuclear. We are only race that was used nuclear weapon at world war Ⅱ. So it is beside the question that Japanese insist on having nuclear, and other country also do not posses nuclear weapon.We must be know the only way for the real peace is all country abandon the nuclear weapon. So why not they abandon it?

In Response

by: David N from: United States
February 17, 2013 7:41 AM
North Korea and Iran would easily lose in a non-nuclear war with many other countries, the US included. They want nuclear weapons primarily to make the US think twice about doing to them what they did to Iraq and Afghanistan, so in that sense it's a perfectly rational deterrence strategy from their perspective.

What I'm more worried about is North Korea, desperate for cash, selling their nukes to private groups, or Iran, keenly interested in seeing *someone* blow up Israel, giving one of theirs away and having plausible deniability when it gets used, thus avoiding nuclear retaliation.

In Response

by: Matt from: Boston
February 16, 2013 2:11 PM
Nohu, so why do you think the USA used nuclear weapons on Japan? It's crummy, but justified. Japan and Germany were the axis of evil and started WW2 and caused millions of deaths. Japan invaded Pearl Harbour and awoke the "sleeping giant"!

Leason learned maybe?


by: zero from: Asia
February 16, 2013 2:57 AM
If Japan drop 200 nuke on China, China will still lives, but if China drop 200 nuke on Japan, Japan will be finished. Take a look at their land mass respectively. By the way how many nuke do it need to explode on the earth surface to disturb the atmosphere to make the weather like Hollywood? Peace.

In Response

by: Chiang from: Singapore
February 20, 2013 1:38 AM
200 is enough to wipe out the entire world. It doesn't require 200 to wipe out entire China, or US, or Iran, or any country. The power of nuclear weapons nowadays are 20-400 times bigger than the ones dropped in Japan. it only takes 1 or 2 and the radiation will make the rest of place inhabitable.
http://www.businessinsider.com/this-chart-shows-the-terrifying-power-of-modern-nuclear-bombs-2012-6

In Response

by: Kaushik from: India
February 16, 2013 2:49 PM
If 200 nukes are dropped on China, then the situation will be such that the survivours will envy the dead. There will be such ghastly effect of radiation that China will not be inhabited by likes of people shown in Resident Evil(US film)).
So dont think of the unthinkable. Peace!

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