East Asian Nuclerarization: Is Trump Wrong?

Presentation given by Dr. Matthew McKinzie on April 25th at the NPEC hosted dinner seminar "East Asian Nuclearization: Is Trump Wrong?"

May 04, 2016
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East Asian Nuclerarization: Is Trump Wrong?
Presentation by Matthew McKinzie

This NPEC dinner seminar examined just how easy it might be for China to enlarge its nuclear arsenal dramatically, and for Japan and South Korea to get arsenals of their own by exploiting their civilian nuclear infrastructures. 

The point of departure for the discussion was Donald Trump’s recent provocative statements that Japan and South Korea should protect themselves, if needs be, with their own nuclear weapons; that it is inevitable that they will do so and that we would be better off if they did. These comments have set off alarms in Tokyo and Seoul. Both countries deal with Chinese and North Korean saber-rattling on almost a daily basis and face the prospect of those countries expanding their nuclear arsenals. 

It may be that neither Japan nor South Korea has a desire to go first, but to say that neither will ever go nuclear belies the technical reality that Japan, South Korea, China, and North Korea are all poised to produce and stockpile tens of thousands of nuclear bombs’ worth of nuclear weapons material. South Korean political leaders recently called on President Park to start reprocessing spent fuel as a military hedge against North Korea, China, and Japan. Shortly thereafter, Seoul’s leading conservative daily newspaper detailed how South Korea could exploit its civilian nuclear infrastructure to get its first bomb in 18 months. Abe’s cabinet, meanwhile, seemed to go out of its way on April 2 to confirm that the Japanese Constitution allows Japan to possess and use nuclear weapons. The government has stockpiled 11 tons of plutonium on Japanese soil – enough to make more than 2,000 nuclear warheads – and plans on opening a large, commercial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho in 2018 designed to make eight tons annually – enough for more than 1,500 bombs. 

This then raises the question was Trump wrong? Technically, how easy might it be for Japan, South Korea, and China to exploit their civilian nuclear infrastructure to make large numbers of nuclear weapons? Is it clearly the case, as Mr. Trump argues, that we “may very well be better off” if Japan and South Korea went nuclear? What are the potential negative military implications of such a move for US alliance relations, military security in East Asia, and nuclear restraint more generally?