The shadow of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) still hangs over Northeast Asia half a decade after the end of the Cold War.1 No other region in the world embraces so many states that haw the technological ability to build nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and which are also divided by deep-seated historical animosities and unresolved territorial and sovereignty disputes.
This is also the only region in the world where nuclear weapons have actually been used in warfare—against Japan in 1945. Further use of nuclear weapons was canvassed at various times throughout the Cold War-in particular by the United States and USSR against China. Three regional states, Taiwan, South Korea, and North Korea, have made persistent but unsuccessful attempts during the past two decades to acquire nuclear weapon technologies and materials.
Regional reliance on, and expertise in, nuclear power is high and growing rapidly. There are currently more than 100 operational nuclear reactors (including research reactors) in Northeast Asian states, with more under construction. The region’s nuclear energy output is scheduled to more than double between 1995 and 201O; US output will likely decline during the same period, while that of Western Europe will increase by less than 10 percent. Currently no states in Southeast Asia have nuclear power programs, although Thailand and Indonesia are seeking to acquire them.
Of the Northeast Asian states, China and North Korea are least dependent on nuclear power. Both obtained less than one percent of their total electricity from this source in 1993. The shares for South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan were 40 percent, 30 percent, and 33 percent, respectively. Japan, moreover, is committed to “fast-breeder” reactors, which are a proliferation concern because they produce more plutonium than do standard light-water reactors (LWRs), and because they use separated weapons-useable plutonium as fuel. Currently, Japan and North Korea are the only non-nuclear states that have the reprocessing facilities necessary to reprocess spent fuel and separate out its plutonium. Operation of North Korea’s reprocessing plant is currently frozen, but the regime may already have produced a very small stock, possibly around 12-15 kg, of separated weapons-grade plutonium-enough for one or two nuclear devices. Japan, by contrast, has some 13,000 kg ofweapons-useable plutonium.
Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are all capable of acquiring nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time, but have chosen-or been persuaded-not to do so. States that have this capability may be described as “virtual” nuclear powers. “Virtual deterrence” exists when states deter conventionally-armed adversaries simply by having the technical capability to go nuclear quickly, but without taking the final step to build operational nuclear weapons. For example, in his recently published memoirs, former Australian Foreign Minister Bill Hayden reveals that in the mid-1980s he had become increasingly concerned about Indonesia’s nuclear power program and had proposed to Prime Minister Bob Hawke that Australia should seek to “reach the threshold of being able to assemble nuclear weaponry… in the shortest possible time.”
China, one of the five declared nuclear weapon states (NWS), continues to pursue a nuclear testing program in defiance of world opinion and has been accused of exporting nuclear weapon technology to Iran, Pakistan, and Algeria. Russia and the United States are both important to the region’s proliferation future as well. A possible US military withdrawal from the region and the prospect of illicit transfers of nuclear materials, technology, and expertise from Russia to states like North Korea are both issues of major proliferation concern. Finally, the possibility that some Northeast Asian states may have clandestine nuclear weapon programs cannot be ignored.
The term “devices” is used deliberately. The North may not yet have the ability to create a weapon small enough to be carried on its Scud missiles. A crude nuclear device could still be used if it were assembled in a tunnel under the Demilitarized Zone. According to the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission, at the end of 1994, Japan’s plutonium inventory was 13,072 kg, of which some 8,720 kg was overseas. See Naoaki Usui, Nucleonics Week, 26 October 1995, 15-16.
On “virtual” nuclear weapons see Roger C. Molander and Peter A. Wilson, The Nuclear Asymptote: On Containing Nuclear Proliferation, MR-214-CC (Santa Monica, Ca.: RAND/UCLA Center for Soviet Studies, 1993); and Michael J. Mazarr, “Virtual Nuclear Arsenals,” Survival 37, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 7-26. Mazarr and others, however, refer to “virtual deterrence” as a deliberate strategy. In the case of the Northeast Asian states in question, the reference is to capabilities that would permit production of nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time. Such a “virtual” nuclear capability, most obvious in the case of Japan, may function as a deterrent even though this is not the purpose for which the capability was acquired.
Bill Hayden, cited in “Hayden Urges Nuclear Catch-up,” Weekend Australian, 30–31 March 1996. Gordon Scholes, who was Labor Defense Minister in 1983–84, has admitted that contingency plans were formulated during the Hawke government to develop the technology necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons iflndonesia or other neighboring states looked like they were going down the nuclear path. The plans were never approved, however. Scholes stated that, notwithstanding official advice, “there certainly was never any agreement that we go nuclear. I would have opposed it under any circumstances.” See Mike Steketee, “Hawke Advisers Drew N Arms Plan,” Weekend Australian, 6-7 April 1996.
There is little reliable information on other weapons of mass destruction in the region. No state admits possessing offensive chemical weapon (CW) capabilities, though all have defensive CW capabilities. Even less is known about biological weapon (BW) programs, which all states also deny possessing. All the Northeast Asian states have ballistic missile and/or space launch programs that are either already, or potentially, capable of delivering WMD. All states also have strike aircraft with ranges in excess of 1,000 km that are capable of delivering payloads in excess of 3,000 kg and that could be used as nuclear/CW delivery platforms.
Despite the very real potential for WMD proliferation, there are no arms control or confidence- and security-building measure (CSBM) agreements in Northeast Asia, nor even a sub-regional multilateral security dialogue. Adding to the growing uncertainty about the sub region’s security future is a major conventional military build-up, which has been facilitated by rapid economic growth and burgeoning hard-currency surpluses.
On the positive side, the end of the Cold War has eradicated the risks associated with the superpower nuclear confrontation in Northeast Asia and removed large numbers of short- and medium-range nuclear systems from within, or within range of, the sub-region. Moves toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Taiwan and South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s were forestalled by US pressure, and US leverage will be an important constraint on any future nuclear ambitions of these two states. China has joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and has indicated its support for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). All other states in the region are members of the NPT (Taiwan’s NPT status is sui generis), and there has been modest progress toward implementation of the October 1994 nuclear agreement (see below) between the United States and North Korea.
In the short term, however, prospects for eliminating the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the sub-region are not good. Supply-side regimes (NPT, CWC, and the Missile Technology Control Regime [MTCR]) are inadequate on their own, and Northeast Asian states have only made tentative progress on the demand side of the proliferation question–i.e., in addressing the security and other incentives that give rise to the perceived need to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the first place.