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Past attempts at nuclear weapons color reaction to later experiments

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Oct 03,2004
When the South Korean government admitted last month that scientists at its state-run research centers conducted experiments in plutonium extraction in the early 1980s and uranium enrichment tests in 2000, the international community decried the incidents and suggested that the tests were not, as Seoul has maintained, “one time, isolated” incidents, purely academic experiments that took place without government authorization. The Roh administration has contended that Korea has always met its international nuclear obligations and its commitment to a nuclear weapons-free peninsula. But there was a time when the South Korean government tried to develop nuclear weapons in a bid to increase its national security. And it was at one time very close to acquiring nuclear technology that would enable it to become a nuclear state. But those efforts, which peaked in the 1970s, were firmly quashed by the United States. Seoul’s nuclear ambitions were revealed in U.S. documents that were declassified in 1998. Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, appreciated the importance of a nuclear program and in 1959 set up the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute, despite Korea’s poverty as it struggled to recover from the devastation of the Korean War earlier in that decade. In 1959, Korea had a per-capita income of only $82. Intensive efforts to develop nuclear arms began in the late 1960s during the Park Chung Hee administration. At that time, Seoul considered itself pressed by security risks: the January 1968 North Korean commando raid on the Blue House; the seizure by the North of the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship, two days later; the downing of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance EC-121 aircraft by North Korean MiGs in April 1969. In July 1969, U.S. president Richard Nixon announced a change in U.S. defense policy that called on friendly Asian nations to take more responsibility for their own defense. To Mr. Park, that seemed more than adequate justification to work on a Korean nuclear bomb. Then in 1971, the U.S. 7th Infantry Division began to withdraw from the peninsula, heightening the sense of urgency here even further. In a presaging of President Roh Moo-hyun’s call for an independent defense strategy, Mr. Park ordered a build-up of the Korean military as the cornerstone of that defense strategy, which he called the “Yulgok Plan.” And the news got no better: in 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. By that time, the government had accelerated its research into nuclear weapons and had set up a secret “Weapons Commission” under the defense ministry to push two major projects: the development of long-range missiles and the manufacture of atomic weapons. Seoul put out feelers to nuclear nations, in particular Canada and France. In 1974, Seoul signed a contract with the Canadians to import a research reactor called NRX; that would allow the production of plutonium from spent reactor fuel. The same year, it agreed with France to buy a “pilot scale” plutonium reprocessing plant. Alarmed, the United States put strong pressure on both Canada and France to ban the transfer of such technology, and the U.S. efforts were strengthened by the atomic test in India in April 1974 of a plutonium weapon using material from a reactor that was a twin of the NRX. Seoul also planned to import a mixed-oxide nuclear fuel fabrication plant from Belgium in 1975, but that effort was also thwarted by Washington. Kang Jung-min, a nuclear analyst said, “All attempts collapsed at the initial stages, when contracts were being drawn up.” By that time, Seoul probably had to technological expertise to produce weapons-grade nuclear material, but by February 1975, Washington had a fairly complete picture of Seoul’s nuclear ambitions. In January 1976, a senior U.S. government delegation visited Seoul to put things bluntly to President Park: close down the project for face a ban on the shipment of nuclear power plant fuel into Korea and perhaps even the withdrawal of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” the promise to retaliate with nuclear weapons if South Korea were attacked using them. That ended attempts to import facilities and equipment from Europe and Canada, but President Park continued to direct the development of a Korean-made research reactor in Daejeon. In October 1978, nuclear fuel processing facilities were completed and seven months later, ground was broken for uranium refining and conversion facilities, which further agitated the U.S. government. But after President Park was assassinated in October 1979, any attempt at a clandestine weapons program came to a halt; Chun Doo Hwan, who seized power in a coup d’etat in late 1979 and became president in 1980, perhaps saw no reason to provoke the conservative Reagan administration that had given him its near-full support. A more formal renunciation of nuclear weapons aspirations came in 1991, when President Roh Tae-woo announced a policy of denuclearizing the peninsula and signed a North-South declaration to that effect that included a renunciation of the reprocessing of nuclear fuel and the enrichment of uranium. Although Seoul signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1975, only in the early 1990s did stringent controls on nuclear technology begin to be applied to member countries. Seoul defends the 1982 experiment to extract plutonium, saying it was a one-time test performed out of scientific curiosity. “At the time, reprocessing plutonium was not a taboo; it was widely done in nations that use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” said Mr. Kang, the nuclear policy analyst. “So it was not a big deal then that plutonium extraction occurred, but now it is a serious matter.” That test, and the later experimental enrichment of uranium, has indeed been seen as a serious matter, despite Seoul’s efforts to downplay them. Two inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency have already been conducted, and a third is scheduled. Mr. Kang conceded, “It will now be more difficult for us to develop reprocessing technology as a part of our other nuclear research.” by Choi Jie-ho


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