North Korea was not the first power on the Korean peninsula to pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons. That distinction goes to U.S. ally South Korea under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee. Ironically, as the U.S. corporate media joins the Pentagon in ratting war sabers against North Korea, the daughter of the South Korean leader who gave the green light to a South Korean nuclear arsenal, Park Geun-hye, was recently placed in prison on criminal fraud charges following her impeachment and removal from the South Korean presidency.
A Confidential cable from the U.S. embassy in Seoul to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on July 30, 1974, just a little over a week before the resignation of President Richard Nixon, set off quiet alarms in Washington. A South Korean official told the U.S. ambassador in Seoul that word reached Seoul that North Korea was preparing to ratify the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While such a move would have been welcomed in the region as a step toward de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the South Korean government waffled on whether it would follow Pyongyang's lead in acceding to the NPT.
In fact, as a series of U.S. State Department cables indicate, the South Koreans had no intention of following Pyongyang on ratifying the NPT. The reason was simple: the Park dictatorship had secretly been developing its own nuclear arsenal.
Seoul began letting its nuclear cat out of the bag in an editorial in the July 12, 1974, edition of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA)-dominated newspaper «Kyunghyang Shinmun». The editorial thought it unwise for South Korea to pursue non-proliferation under the American nuclear protection umbrella. The cable from Seoul to Kissinger stated that the editorial was unambiguous about Seoul's intentions: «the ROK [Republic of Korea] can no longer take a negative attitude on the spread of nuclear capability out of humanitarian or sentimental concerns». The cable contained a stark warning for Washington: «Most senior ROK defense planners desire to obtain capability eventually to produce nuclear weapons». The cable added that U.S. pressure on Seoul could expected to be met by «growing independence» by South Korea on defense matters.
The year 1974 presented a «perfect storm» for South Korea to embark on a nuclear weapons program. The skyrocketing of oil prices that year propelled South Korea’s nuclear power industry, which was bolstered by two Westinghouse nuclear power plants then under construction and contracts for Canada to supply South Korea with two CANDU reactors. In addition, Seoul was talking to Gulf General Atomics about obtaining three 800-megawatt reactors that used highly-enriched uranium fuel. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), believing South Korea to be «loyal» to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation, heartily endorsed the South’s obtaining additional nuclear power plants through 1985.
In a Secret cable from Seoul to the State Department dated November 4, 1974, the U.S. ambassador in Seoul Richard Sneider informed State that in conversations with the Canadian ambassador in Seoul, James Alexander Stiles, the Canadian envoy indicated that he was aware of a potential South Korean «diversion program» to funnel Canadian nuclear power technology to Seoul’s covert nuclear weapons program.
The highly-enriched uranium obtained by the South for its nuclear power plants was also necessary for the development of nuclear weapons. South Korea also had a separate covert program to develop weapons-grade plutonium. Seoul even had secret discussions with the Japanese on the joint production of nuclear reprocessing in South Korea because the issue was too politically sensitive in Japan for such plants on Japanese soil. As seen from its acquisition program for «dual use» nuclear technology, Seoul's nuclear weapons program had gone far beyond the planning stages when the U.S. embassy in Seoul first alerted Kissinger about Seoul’s nuclear ambitions.
A Secret memo to Kissinger, dated November 20, 1974, states explicitly that «President Park privately told Korean newsmen last August that he had ordered Korean scientists to develop ‘atom bombs’ by 1977. Present intelligence estimates are that the ROK could possibly fabricate a nuclear device by about 1980, provided that it is prepared to violate agreements associated with its power or research and derived nuclear material and that it could obtain the necessary chemical separation facility in the interim».
Under tremendous pressure from the Gerald Ford administration, South Korea, which had signed the NPT in 1968, finally ratified it in 1975. However, it is believed that work never actually stopped on South Korea's nuclear weapons program. Like that of Japan, it was buried deep within the «peaceful» nuclear power program. During the Jimmy Carter administration, when it was announced that the U.S. would withdraw its ground troops from South Korea, Park resumed the covert South Korean nuclear weapons program by secretly trying to obtain nuclear fuel reprocessing technology and materials from France».
In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, North and South Korea signed the «Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula». Although the North had not signed the NPT, it agreed with Seoul to not seek to «possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities». Furthermore, North and South vowed that they would not «test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons». North Korea proceeded to violate the North-South accord by continuing to develop a nuclear weapons capability. It tested an underground nuclear weapon at the Punggye-ri Test Site in 2006.
In 2004, the South Koreans had a surprise for the IAEA. It declared to the agency that it had conducted uranium enrichment and conversion and plutonium separation experiments at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI). The IAEA considered the South's breach a severe violation of the NPT. The South Korean government said the experiments had been conducted «without the knowledge or authorization of the government». In a structured society like South Korea, the claim by Seoul was laughable, if it had not been so serious a move to acquire weapons-grade nuclear material.
Today, the neocon war mongers inside the Trump administration are hankering for a military showdown with North Korea. Such brinkmanship comes at a potential deadly cost to the United States. There are over 130,000 American citizens, including military forces, living in South Korea. Most live within range of North Korean artillery, which, in the first stages of a military conflict, will rain down their shells on metropolitan Seoul.
However, as much as it may be discomforting to U.S. war planners, none of the regional powers in northeast Asia will acquiesce to U.S. troops being stationed on the Yalu River border between North Korea and China or the Tumen River border of the North with Russia.
If the world’s goal is a denuclearized Korean peninsula, there are certain guarantees that will have to be recognized by all parties. A prohibition on nuclear weapons applies to South Korea as much as it does to the North. A unified Korea allied to the United States is not even a realistic possibility, as it will be rejected by China, Russia, Japan, and most of the people of South Korea who will refuse to assume the financial burden and logistics nightmare of absorbing the North.
The best the United States and its allies can hope for is a denuclearized North Korea under a post-Kim regime that will vigorously adhere to neutrality in foreign and defense policy. The U.S. will not see a North Korean version of the South’s Syngman Rhee or Park Chung Hee but, rather, will have to settle for a North Korean «Marshal Tito» or «Prince Sihanouk».