Japan and South Korea May Soon Go Nuclear via The Wall Street Journal

The longtime status quo is crumbling and plutonium stockpiles are rising.

On Friday North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un praised his country’s recent hydrogen bomb test and satellite launch as “unprecedented” achievements that will “bring the final victory of the revolution.” Such rhetoric is nothing new, but North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and a growing sense that security arrangements with the U.S. aren’t sufficient has eroded the Japanese taboo against nuclear weapons. On April 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet announced that Japan’s constitution did not ban his country from having or using nuclear arms.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s ruling-party leaders have urged President Park Geun-hye to stockpile “peaceful” plutonium as a military hedge against its neighbors. A Feb. 19 article in Seoul’s leading conservative daily, the Chosun Ilbo, went so far as to detail how South Korea could use its existing civilian nuclear facilities to build a bomb in 18 months.

Japan and South Korea are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and Tokyo’s antinuclear-weapons stance dates to 1945 and the nuclear devastation the U.S. wreaked on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that won’t necessarily stop either country from joining the nuclear club—or at least positioning themselves to do so quickly—if they feel the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” is folding.

Japan already has stockpiled 11 tons of plutonium, separated from fuel used in its nuclear-power reactors. A bomb requires roughly five kilograms (or 1/200th of a ton). The old shibboleth, popular with the nuclear industry, that such “reactor-grade” plutonium is unsuitable for weapons, is essentially irrelevant for a technologically advanced country. Japan also has built—but not operated—a large reprocessing plant of French design that can separate about eight tons of plutonium a year.

The shutdown of Japan’s power reactors following the 2011 Fukushima disaster means there are no reactors online that can use this plutonium. But Japan says it will proceed with reprocessing anyway, putatively to keep open the distant possibility of fueling a new generation of so-called fast-breeder reactors. Japan’s nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington allows it to do this with U.S.-origin fuel. South Korea’s agreement prohibits this without U.S. approval, something Seoul chafes at. It sees itself the equal of Japan. Should Japan operate Rokkasho, as it plans to do late in 2018, it will be impossible politically to restrain South Korea from following suit.

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