Both South Korea and Japan have recently hinted at their renewed interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. In February, after North Korea conducted a nuclear test, an article in South Korea’s daily newspaper, The Chosun Ibo, reported that “there have been voices calling for South Korea to develop a nuclear weapon of its own.” Then in April, Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe stated that the Japanese constitution does not preclude the country from possessing and using nuclear weapons, in spite of Japan’s deeply ingrained cultural aversion to them.
The possibility that two signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty could express an interest in building weapons of mass destruction has raised some alarm among nonproliferation advocates. Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center recently penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Japan and South Korea May Soon Go Nuclear” and warned that “plutonium stockpiles are rising.”
In reality, such a scenario is unlikely, particularly that it will happen “soon.” Although there is popular support in South Korea for acquiring nuclear weapons, there appears to be little backing among the elite. With the country facing a presidential election next year, any immediate revamp of its nuclear program would be read as precipitous and cynical posturing. Such a drastic policy shift would be even more unlikely in Japan, where public opposition to any sort of militarization has slowed even minor steps toward greater independence in defense.
Despite clear signs that neither country has serious intentions of building nuclear weapons, nonproliferation advocates, such as Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, complain that even the mere mention of allies building atomic bombs weakens the credibility of the nuclear umbrella, which is Washington’s pact to go to nuclear war to protect its allies, however small. If nations such as Japan and South Korea consider adopting nuclear weapons, then what reason does Washington have to
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