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South Korea’s First Attempt at Going Nuclear

Seoul attempted to attain nuclear weapons back in the 1970s, only to be stopped by heavy pressure from Washington.

By Gabriela Bernal, February 15, 2023

The debate about whether South Korea should pursue independent nuclear armaments is once again making headlines. A recent survey showed that nearly 77 percent of South Koreans believe in the necessity of developing a domestic nuclear weapons program. The issue has gained even more traction with major government figures, including the president himself, floating the possibility of South Korea going nuclear.

But this isn’t the first time that Seoul has considered or even pursued a nuclear weapons program. In fact, back in the 1970s, the United States was more concerned about a nuclear program in the South than the North, a scenario that seems unimaginable today.

In 1972, South Korean President Park Chung-hee launched a clandestine military nuclear program called “Project 890,” the existence of which was only discovered by Washington in late 1974. This was a period of high anxiety for Park……………………………………………………………..

Despite strong opposition from Seoul, Washington stood its ground. With U.S. pressure growing, by December 1975 South Korea sought “concrete information” about possible U.S. nuclear aid if Seoul decided to cancel the reprocessing deal. Washington’s position was that it would be prepared to send U.S. personnel to the South for peaceful nuclear cooperation after South Korea made the decision to cancel the French deal………………………………….

Lessons Learned and What’s at Stake Today

South Korea’s first attempt at going nuclear leaves us with several lessons and warnings. First, if it was impossible for Seoul to secretly pursue a nuclear program in the early 1970s, there would be absolutely no way of doing so now.

Second, although South Korean technology today is far superior to what it had in the 1970s, it would still need support from the international community to develop nuclear weapons. However, with South Korea being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and nuclear non-proliferation being established as a firm principle in the international community, going the nuclear path would mean violating legal agreements, which would lead to diplomatic isolation and multilateral backlash from the international community.

Choosing the nuclear option would also greatly damage the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Washington did not support Seoul going nuclear in the 1970s and maintains this stance today. In addition, South Korea would be jeopardizing its nuclear energy industry as well, since many of its reactors rely on U.S. and other foreign licenses to operate.

Besides this, and perhaps most importantly, South Korea going nuclear would make any calls for the denuclearization of the North completely void. This would prolong the Korean War, make diplomacy almost impossible, significantly raise military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and even possibly lead to a regional (nuclear) arms race.

Such a scenario would be highly unfavorable for all players involved, in both the short- and long-term. South Korea must realize that its highly-trained conventional forces, backed by U.S. conventional military support, are enough to respond to North Korean military provocations. While the current level of U.S. reassurances to the South may be insufficient for many, the answer should not be the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The best way to deter a North Korean attack is through diplomacy and dialogue with Pyongyang. This is the only way to come to a peaceful solution, to have a chance at arms control in the North, and to get to a place where peaceful coexistence is possible.

Gabriela Bernal

Gabriela Bernal is a Ph.D. scholar at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul and a freelance writer on North Korean affairs. She specializes in inter-Korean relations, North Korea-U.S. relations, and North Korean foreign policy.


February 15, 2023 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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