Tuesday, August 30, 2005

North Korea Sparks Proliferation Fears Throughout Asia

WSJ.com - North Korea Sparks Proliferation Fears Throughout Asia

Historic Rivalries Exacerbate
Nuclear Anxiety in Region;
Taipei Frets About China
Japan's New Plutonium Plant
June 16, 2005; Page A1

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

ROKKASHO-MURA, Japan -- It has taken 20 years and $20 billion to complete the nuclear-reprocessing plant that sprawls across a windy field here within sight of Japan's northern Pacific coast.

If all goes as planned, the facility later this year will begin separating plutonium from highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. At full capacity, the plant will produce about nine tons of plutonium a year. That's enough to meet 10% of Japan's civilian nuclear-fuel needs -- or to make 1,000 nuclear warheads.

Japan, which has forsworn nuclear weapons, says the venture is solely commercial and an important step toward energy self-sufficiency. The only nation to suffer a nuclear attack -- the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II -- Japan retains fierce anti-nuclear feelings, though not as fierce as they once were.

But in a region already fearful of North Korea's nuclear-weapons ambitions, the Rokkasho project is adding to the anxiety. Arms-control experts and some U.S. officials warn that if North Korea tests an atomic bomb, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan might reconsider their pledges not to develop nuclear weapons. This trio of American allies possesses more than enough technical expertise, and Asian history supplies considerable mistrust.


See a Q&A with a nonproliferation expert on the state of global nuclear affairs. Plus, the nonproliferation treaty may be losing its teeth amid moves in Iran, North Korea.

"If you had a nuclear North Korea, it just introduces a whole different dynamic," the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, told reporters earlier this month. "That increases the pressure on both South Korea and Japan to consider going nuclear themselves."

For years, the nuclear temptation in Asia as elsewhere has been held in check by formal agreement and a strong international taboo. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, countries that renounced nuclear weapons could expect their neighbors and rivals to be similarly constrained.

But the constraints have weakened over the past decade. India and Pakistan, which never signed the treaty, declared themselves nuclear-armed -- and paid little price for their defiance. Iran is widely suspected of trying to use its nuclear-power complex to build a weapon. And speculation has mounted that North Korea -- which declared in February it has nuclear weapons -- could be preparing to test one.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all insist they have no nuclear-weapons ambitions. American pressure and, in the case of Taiwan, the threat of Chinese retaliation serve as powerful restraints. But key players in all three countries have begun to quietly question their own anti-nuclear pledges while raising even stronger doubts about their neighbors' intentions.

Chun Yung Woo, South Korea's deputy foreign minister for policy planning, warns that a nuclear-armed North Korea could set off a "nuclear domino effect," with Japan and Taiwan following. "I don't think Japan will go nuclear overnight because of a North Korean test," he says, "but it would fundamentally change the balance of forces...providing strong ammunition to the Japanese rightists" who have advocated a more muscular military. Harsh Japanese colonial rule during most of the first half of the past century has left many South Koreans deeply suspicious of Japan.

Japanese officials are just as edgy about South Korea, especially after Seoul admitted last summer that scientists at a government institute had enriched, or concentrated, a very small amount of uranium in 2000. The enrichment process can be used to produce fuel for nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons. South Korean officials said the experiment was unauthorized and wouldn't be repeated.

In light of that episode, Tadao Yanase, director for nuclear-energy policy at Japan's trade ministry, says he wouldn't want South Korea to operate a fuel-reprocessing plant such as Rokkasho. "I don't think the international community can easily trust the country which had this in their past," Mr. Yanase says.

North Korea's erratic behavior has greatly exacerbated this uneasiness. Last week, North Korean officials seemed to signal an interest in coming back to international disarmament talks but then declared that they were building more nuclear weapons.

A high-powered group of nonproliferation experts, meanwhile, has called on Tokyo to "indefinitely postpone" operations at Rokkasho, warning that starting the Japanese plant could make it harder to persuade North Korea and Iran to abandon their reprocessing and enrichment efforts. The group, brought together by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy organization, includes former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry.

Separately, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has called for a five-year moratorium on all new nuclear-fuel plants, which he says can turn countries into "latent" nuclear-weapons states. Aides to Mr. ElBaradei say he hasn't said whether the Japanese facility would be covered by a moratorium. Eight countries, although not the U.S., now do significant reprocessing. With Rokkasho, Japan would become the ninth, and the only one without nuclear weapons.

From the outside, Rokkasho, which also includes a uranium-enrichment plant, looks like an ordinary industrial complex, with surprisingly low-key security. Two rows of fencing ring its 1,800 acres, but the gate to a local road stood open on two recent days and guards checking identification were unarmed. A police armored personnel carrier sat outside the facility's most sensitive site: the squat building that houses the 40-foot-deep cooling ponds containing 1,300 tons of spent fuel from Japanese nuclear power plants.

Making MOX

When nuclear fuel, which is made of uranium, burns in a reactor, plutonium is one of the byproducts. The mission of Rokkasho is to extract that plutonium and mix it with uranium to make a newer form of fuel known as MOX. Japan, a country without oil, gas or uranium deposits, has long coveted its own domestically produced source of fuel.

From a viewing gallery above the cooling ponds, the metal sheathing of the 14-foot-long rectangular spent-fuel assemblies look like miniature skyscrapers, glimmering faintly in the dark water. Once the plant begins operating, the spent fuel will be sliced into 1.5-inch pieces that will be dissolved in nitric acid and the plutonium separated out.

Isami Kojima, president of the plant's owner, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., acknowledges that some outsiders may worry about proliferation. He says the plant's operations will be "fully transparent," with IAEA inspectors on site 24 hours a day to ensure against diversion of nuclear material. He also vows that pure "plutonium will never be produced." The IAEA, however, classifies MOX as a "direct use material" -- along with plutonium and enriched uranium -- since the plutonium in MOX can be removed relatively easily for use in weapons.

Symbolic Threat

Any perceived threat posed by the Rokkasho plant is mostly symbolic, since Japan has long had the materials and skills it would need for nuclear weapons. European contractors and a small Japanese plant have already separated some 40 tons of plutonium for eventual use as fuel. The country can also enrich uranium, another key nuclear-weapon ingredient.

Within Japan, debate over Rokkasho has focused solely on safety and economics. The Japanese nuclear industry has been battered by a series of accidents and scandals, and there is extra public wariness about comparatively new MOX fuel. No local government has yet agreed to the burning of MOX in its reactor.

Officials with the Japanese utilities that helped finance Rokkasho say the key issue is energy security for a country that gets about a third of its electricity from nuclear power. "We can't rely on the world to guarantee the security of our energy supply and our economy," says Teruaki Masumoto, vice chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies.

The utilities have another serious problem: The spent-fuel ponds at their 53 commercial reactors are filling up. Industry officials say their best hope of persuading local governments to build "interim storage" is if they promise the fuel will eventually be reprocessed at Rokkasho.

Opposition to nuclear weapons "is part of the identity of the Japanese people, as the world's only victims of a nuclear attack," says Akihiko Tanaka, an international-relations scholar at Tokyo University. Still, over the years, Japanese officials -- and not just those on the far-right fringe -- have quietly contemplated the nuclear-arms question, occasionally even ordering up studies on the topic. But until recently, any politician who publicly raised the possibility of nuclear armament usually lost his job.

That political restraint is weakening. In 2002, a leading opposition politician, Ichiro Ozawa, said that if China, which has nuclear weapons, became too powerful, "we have plenty of plutonium in our nuclear power plants, so it's possible for us to produce 3,000 to 4,000 nuclear warheads." That same year, Yasuo Fukuda, then the government's chief cabinet secretary, told reporters that as Japan considers amendment of its post-World War II "peace constitution," which bars the country from having offensive military capability, its declared anti-nuclear stance "is also likely" to change.

Mr. Ozawa later retracted his remarks, and Mr. Fukuda tried to soften his. But neither resigned.

Masahiro Akiyama, a former vice defense minister, says the fact that leaders can talk out loud about nuclear weapons, even if rarely, is the result of Japan's maturity and its growing sense of vulnerability. That vulnerability was brought home in 1998 when North Korea tested a non-nuclear missile over Japan and again in 2002 when Pyongyang confirmed that it had abducted a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

Both Mr. Akiyama and the international-relations scholar, Mr. Tanaka, say that if there is a North Korean nuclear test, discussion of nuclear weapons will become more common. But they believe that Japan is far more likely to bolster its conventional military forces -- a process already under way as the country moves toward a more "ordinary" military -- while seeking even stronger military ties with the U.S. The American and Japanese governments would also have to work "to calm down more extreme elements" in Japan, Mr. Tanaka says.

Japanese Threat?

Meanwhile, Japan's neighbors are nervously watching not just North Korea, but the Japanese as well. Historic Korean mistrust of Japan has been exacerbated recently by a dispute between Seoul and Tokyo over two small islands, as well as concern over Japan's moves toward strengthening its military. In a poll in April by the Seoul-based survey firm Research & Research, 37% of respondents ranked Japan as South Korea's biggest security threat. That compared with 29% for North Korea, 19% for the U.S. and 12% for China.

In a separate poll last July, Kim Tae Hyun, a political scientist at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, found that 51% agreed that South Korea should have nuclear weapons.

Both anti-Japanese and pro-nuclear sentiment will play out in a big-budget South Korean movie set for release this summer. "Heaven's Soldiers" features a fictional joint North and South Korean nuclear-weapons program. The nuclear-armed heroes travel back in time to medieval Korea, where they help fend off invasions by the Manchurians and Japanese. "The reason these kinds of plots appeal to Korean viewers is that many Koreans believe that if they have nuclear weapons it would prevent" attacks by hostile regional powers, says Min Joon Ki, the film's writer and director.

South Korea has a substantial base of nuclear material and expertise. It has 19 nuclear plants and more than 40 tons of unseparated plutonium in spent fuel stored under IAEA monitoring. Seoul also had a secret weapons program in the 1970s and 1980s, until the U.S. threatened to withdraw its military protection. Unlike in Japan, the U.S. has successfully discouraged South Korea from developing reprocessing or uranium-enrichment technology -- a double standard that rankles many South Koreans.

American and IAEA officials say they see no sign that Seoul is trying to revive a weapons program. But privately, some officials say they are skeptical of Seoul's claim that its uranium-enrichment experiments in 2000 -- which required a lot of money and access to uranium and were hidden from the IAEA -- received no official support.

Chang In Soon, the former head of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, where the experiments in 2000 took place, acknowledges that "developing a complete fuel cycle is every nuclear scientist's dream." But he adds, "We have declared denuclearization to the international community, which makes it impossible for us."

Japan is another issue, he says. "Although Japan claims its experiments are carried out transparently under the full inspection of international nuclear watchdogs, the country has the potential to make nuclear weapons," the South Korean says. "The potential development of nuclear weapons by Japan in the future when circumstances change cannot be ruled out."

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Washington stopped various covert weapons programs in Taiwan. As in South Korea, the U.S. has blocked Taiwan from developing its own fuel production. Taiwan's fear that others in the region may go nuclear, as well as the island's anxiety about the growing number of Chinese missiles aimed in its direction, might tempt nationalist and avowedly anti-nuclear leaders to think again.

Last summer, the pro-government Taipei Times editorialized that "the ability to obliterate China's ten largest cities and the Three Gorges Dam would be a powerful deterrent to China's adventurism." The editorial, coupled with unconfirmed reports that the government had set up a small committee to review the feasibility of nuclear weapons, led Nelson Ku, an opposition legislator and former head of the navy, to demand an explanation. Taiwan's then-premier, Yu Shyi-kun, denied that the country is developing nuclear weapons.

Write to Carla Anne Robbins at carla.robbins@wsj.com and Gordon Fairclough at gordon.fairclough@wsj.com


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