35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Stopping Korea from Going Nuclear, Part I

Published: Mar 22, 2017
Briefing Book #582

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact
William Burr: 202/994-7000 and nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Seoul – Not Pyongyang – Created Anxiety in Washington in mid-1970s
Ford Administration Sought to “Inhibit … Development of a Nuclear Explosive Capability;” South Korean Officials Initially Resisted
Lessons for Today’s Challenges in Confronting Proliferation

Washington, D.C., March 22, 2017 – President Park Chung-hee reportedly instructed South Korean scientists to build nuclear bombs by 1977, according to a secret report to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.  The Ford administration accumulated other evidence that raised worries about proliferation and regional instability.

Today’s posting, the first of two on U.S. policy toward South Korea’s atomic weapons program in the mid-1970s, is based on a wide variety of declassified sources, including records released through mandatory declassification review.  They offer an account of the first stages of what became a successful U.S. effort to keep an ally from engaging in destabilizing proliferation activity in one of the world’s enduring trouble spots.

* * * * *

The United States and South Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program, 1974-1976,
Part I

Edited by William Burr

The Gerald Ford administration worried about a nuclear threat emerging in the Korean peninsula in the mid-1970s – not from the North, but the South, where the General Park Chung-hee dictatorship had plans to produce fissile material for supporting a nuclear weapons capability. The Ford administration first received intelligence about South Korean nuclear developments in the fall of 1974. According to a special report prepared for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, published here by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project for the first time, General Park (father of the recently impeached South Korean president) had told Korean journalists that he had directed scientists to build atomic bombs by 1977 and had also informed an industrial conference that he wanted long-range missiles for retaliation against North Korean provocations. U.S. intelligence originally estimated that the Republic of Korea (ROK) could produce a nuclear device by 1980.

Kissinger learned that the ROK was negotiating with France to purchase a chemical separation plant, which could be used to produce plutonium from spent reactor fuel. According to the special report, If the South went ahead with a weapons program, it would “have a deeply unsettling impact on regional stability” and on U.S. nonproliferation strategy. Preventing a South Korean nuclear breakout would require “early cooperation” with allied nuclear suppliers and some use of U.S. “political leverage.” Intelligence reports about a threat to stability eventually led to difficult and contentious, but ultimately successful, negotiations with Seoul, although serious concerns about South Korean nuclear activities would emerge in the future.

Drawing upon a wide range of declassified sources, today’s posting, the first of two, provides key documents about U.S. detection of the South Korean nuclear program and the initial effort to persuade Seoul to cancel its plans for a plutonium reprocessing plant. Highlights of Part I include:

  • A July 1974 telegram from the U.S. embassy in Seoul, possibly the earlier such report, conveying the “visceral feeling” at the embassy, “based only on growing independence of Korean attitude toward defense matters and increasing doubts about [the] durability of U.S. commitments, that most senior ROK defense planners desire to obtain capability eventually to produce nuclear weapons.”
  • A March 1975 State Department message to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul affirming that because a South Korean nuclear capability would have “a destabilizing impact,” the U.S.’s “basic objective is to discourage ROK effort in this area and to inhibit to the fullest possible extent any ROK development of a nuclear explosive capability or a delivery system.”
  • Ambassador to Seoul Richard Sneider’s advice, a few weeks later, that the U.S. government avoid “pussy-footing” and take an “direct, early, and firm” approach against the ROK nuclear program.
  • An 8 September 1975 meeting between Sneider and Acting Foreign Minister Lho Shing-yong, who rejected the U.S. demand to cancel the reprocessing plant. Reviewing the recent history of Korea’s nuclear energy program, Lho declared that the proposed facility was strictly for “study and research purposes” and that even Japan was doing the “same thing” without evening signing the NPT.
  • An October 1975 meeting in which Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ingersoll discussed the reprocessing plant with South Korean Ambassador Hahm. After the latter argued that the plant was too small to produce weapons material, Ingersoll observed that if it operated without interruption for a year it could produce 20 kilograms of plutonium (the equivalent of about 3 “Fat Man” implosion bombs). Hahm conceded that point was “devastating,” and further acknowledged that if Washington was insistent on cancellation it “might be necessary” for Seoul to do so.

In late 2016 and early 2017, the growing apprehension over North Korea’s nuclear-missile capabilities generated discussion in South Korea and elsewhere over whether Seoul might undertake a nuclear weapons program to better deter threats from the North. Indeed, South Korean sources suggest that it would only take six-to-nine months for Seoul to fashion a testable nuclear device.[1] During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald J. Trump startled many by taking a relaxed approach to a possible South Korean or even a Japanese nuclear weapons project. Yet, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has traveled to East Asia to reaffirm traditional security arrangements and U.S. missile defense plans for South Korea are already under way. Complicating matters, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised the possibility of a nuclear weapons option for Japan as a response to North Korea’s advancement in nuclear-missile delivery capabilities. Such a development could produce new dangers, including further proliferation in the region, from South Korea to Taiwan. As South Korea was an early signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it would require extraordinary developments, such as the nuclearization of Japan or the collapse of U.S. security commitments, for it to upend the NPT system. To keep the recent developments and concerns in perspective, it is worth looking closely at the events of the mid-1970s when Washington cooperated with its Canadian and French allies to prevent the Park military dictatorship from purchasing sensitive nuclear technology.

South Korean interest in nuclear weapons dates back to the 1950s. Strong anti-nuclear sentiment did not exist in part because of the perception that the A-bomb had had a decisive impact on the defeat of Japan, which had subjected Korea to a decades-long harsh colonial occupation. President Syngman Rhee was personally interested in a South Korean nuclear capability and in the late 1950s supported funding for nuclear energy research with a weapons program as a long-range goal.[2] Student protests toppled the authoritarian Rhee government in April 1960 but after a military junta took power the next month, General Park Chung-hee quickly rose to the top, becoming elected president in 1962, eventually declaring himself “president for life” while suppressing domestic opposition. While pushing forward industrial development, Park maintained a close relationship with Washington, which was cemented by the deployment of South Korean troops to fight in South Vietnam through the course of the war.

U.S. documentation on the Seoul-Washington interactions is relatively abundant, but South Korean records concerning the inside story of Park’s decisions on a nuclear weapons capability may not exist; questions linger over what happened to Park’s papers after his 1979 dinner party assassination. Nevertheless, South Korean researchers have made progress through interviews with former officials; in a recent publication Se Young Jang identified “a major catalyst of Park’s decision:” the Nixon administration’s decision in early 1970 to withdraw a U.S. Army division, amounting to 20,000 troops out of 63,000. Park strongly objected; that along with Washington’s cautious approach toward crises with North Korea (1968 and 1969) made him skeptical about the credibility of U.S. security guarantees. According to Jang, “What mattered to [Park] was that the U.S. government might abandon South Korea if it was necessary for the sake of Washington’s broader strategic interests.” It was in the context of significant apprehension about the long-term reliability of U.S. security guarantees that Park launched his audacious and highly secret 890 Project in the early 1970s. The collapse of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975 heightened concerns in Seoul about U.S. reliability and may well have increased Park’s resolve to pursue the nuclear option.[3]

Park kept his secret for several years, but by the fall of 1974 Seoul’s efforts to buy sensitive nuclear technology enabled U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers to start connecting the dots.[4] In January 1975, the intelligence community produced a (still) classified report that concluded that the Park regime had undertaken a program to produce nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Within weeks, Washington was planning a secret diplomatic campaign to induce Seoul to change course. Whatever Kissinger’s expectations may have been, South Korean officials put up a tough initial resistance to U.S. demands, strongly arguing that their nuclear program was entirely for peaceful purposes and that South Korea was just as entitled as Japan was to operate reprocessing technology.

The Korean issue was diplomatically tricky because when Washington learned about the reprocessing sale nuclear exporters had not agreed to ground rules for the application of IAEA safeguards to sensitive exports. Such rules did not exist until the fall of 1975. The French had reached the agreement with Seoul on the reprocessing facility before the May 1974 Indian nuclear test, but they became increasingly aware of the risks of going forward in the months that followed. Moreover, in light of the publicity over their role in facilitating the Indian test by selling a virtually unsafeguarded reactor years earlier, the Canadians were highly supportive of the U.S. position against the export of reprocessing equipment. Closely coordinated by Kissinger with Canadian and French ambassadors in Washington, the quiet diplomatic offensive against the proposed reprocessing plant was an early test of the emerging consensus among nuclear exporters against the sale of sensitive technologies.

One important constraint on the 890 Project was that the Park regime ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in April 1975, partly under Canadian pressure (as a condition for a reactor sale).[5] That effectively committed the ROK to peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to compliance with international safeguards. It is possible that Park and his subordinates expected to develop a weapons capability sub rosa by taking steps toward building a bomb, such as producing fissionable materials and testing conventional implosion technology. That is now called “nuclear latency,” but U.S. officials had once characterized it as “nuclear pregnancy,”[6] It would have been difficult for South Korea to produce plutonium without IAEA inspectors noticing it, but perhaps Park thought that he could bluff his way through. Any final steps toward weaponization, however, would have required the renunciation of the NPT, which in itself would have produced a U.S.-Korean and broader regional crisis.

This collection draws on a number of sources:

  • Declassified telegrams on-line at the National Archives “Access to Archival Databases” (AAD)
  • Formerly classified telegrams that are listed on the AAD that were declassified through requests to NARA or the Department of State (in the latter case, when the microfilmed copies are in P-reels held by the Department)
  • declassified collection of paper copies of “Nodis” [No Distribution”] telegrams for 1975, opened up at NARA at the request of the National Security Archive,
  • other State Department collections at the National Archives
  • documents from Digital National Security Archive collections, Korea, 1969-2000, and Korea II, 1969-2010, edited by Robert Wampler
  • an important document (Number 6) from the Web Site of the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.

Many of the most important documents on the U.S.-South Korean nuclear controversy have been declassified, but records of some important U.S.-ROK meetings remain partly or entirely closed, although they are under declassification review. This includes some key discussions with Korean and French diplomats during December 1975 and January 1975, as well as the record of a meeting between Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and President Park in August 1975, for which the discussion of nuclear issues remains partly classified. The intelligence community’s January 1975 report about the ROK nuclear program is entirely classified.  The CIA has denied a National Security Archive request for the latter and it is still under appeal at the Agency.

Part II of this collection will document the final stages of the U.S.-South Korean controversy over nuclear reprocessing, demonstrating how Seoul climbed down from its determination to uphold the reprocessing contract and pursued interest in nuclear research through a program of cooperation with Washington.

* * *


1. Early Suspicions

Document 1: U.S. Embassy in Republic of Korea telegram 4957 to Department of State, “Korean Accession to NPT,” 30 July 1974, Confidential

Source: Record Group 59, Department of State Records [RG 59), Access to Archival Databases [AAD]

Conversations with South Korean diplomats and a newspaper editorial, among other sources, led outgoing Ambassador Philip Habib to report a “visceral feeling” at the embassy, “based only on growing independence of Korean attitude toward defense matters and increasing doubts about [the] durability of U.S. commitments, that most senior ROK defense planners desire to obtain capability eventually to produce nuclear weapons.” One of the sources was an official at the Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Office, who disclosed that the Korean CIA and the Ministry of National Defense opposed ratification of the NPT.

The conversations cited by Habib and his “visceral feeling” may have helped trigger, or reinforce, an investigation by the Embassy’s CIA station, spearheaded by junior officer Richard P. Lawless, who later discovered that the Blue House (the presidential mansion) lodged an office for the secret weapons project [More information on Lawless will be published in Part II of this posting]. [7]

Document 2: U.S. Mission to IAEA, Vienna, telegram 7090 to Department of State, “Korean Accession to the NPT,” 13 August 1974, Confidential

Source: RG 59, AAD

Commenting on the Seoul Embassy’s report, staffers at the U.S. Mission to the IAEA shared the concern about South Korea’s nuclear weapons interests. Not only was Seoul seeking to move into nuclear power production in a “big way,” South Korean experts were exploring reprocessing technologies available in Western Europe “with a view to considering construction of a plant in Korea.” The mission recommended that any U.S. government review of the problem of nuclear proliferation should “address the problem of ROK-type fence straddlers” and carry out the program of “active diplomacy” that Secretary Kissinger had recently discussed.

Document 3: U.S. Embassy in Republic of Korea telegram 7328 to Department of State, “Canadian Nuclear Reactor Program in Korea,” 4 November 1974, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

Canada’s ambassador to the ROK J.A. [James Alexander] Stiles shared information with his U.S. counterpart, Richard Sneider, on the ongoing Canadian-Korean negotiations for the sale of two nuclear reactors, CANDU 3 and 4, for generating electrical power. Stiles observed that the Koreas were “anxious” to purchase a research reactor, but the Canadians were “reluctant” to do so because that could raise the risk of a “diversion” of plutonium for military purposes. In his comments to the State Department, Sneider suggested that Washington could use its influence to ensure that Ottawa did not sell a research reactor. Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy was preparing an overall assessment of the ROK nuclear program.

Document 4: Winston Lord, director, Policy Planning Staff, and Martin Packman, deputy director, Office of Intelligence and Research, “Second Alert Report,” 20 November 1974, Secret, enclosing “Alert Report for the Secretary.”

Source: RG 59, Records of the Policy Planning Staff, Director's Files (Winston Lord), 1969-1977, box 348, November 1974

While Kissinger was traveling with President Ford for meetings in Japan, South Korea, and finally the Vladivostok Summit with Soviet leaders, one of his chief aides, Winston Lord co-signed an “alert report” on South Korea’s secret nuclear weapons program. It is likely that during the days or weeks before the CIA station had reached its conclusion that the Park regime had initiated a secret nuclear program, although the chronology of events is uncertain. Whether this was the first report on the topic that Kissinger had seen is unclear; Ford and Kissinger met with President Park during 22-23 November and it possible that the CIA had already included items about South Korean nuclear activities in the President’s Daily Brief (if it did, the information was not included in the recent CIA release of PDBs).

The report’s authors intended it as a model for an alert report system to flag issues that could become more pressing in six to nine months. According to the report on South Korea, General Park Chung-hee told Korean journalists that he had directed scientists to build atomic bombs by 1977; he had also informed an industrial conference that he wanted long-range missiles for retaliation against North Korean provocations. U.S. intelligence had collected information that ROK was negotiating with the French to purchase a chemical separation plant for producing plutonium from spent reactor fuel.

If South Korea violated international safeguards, it could produce nuclear weapons by 1980, an outcome that would “have a deeply unsettling impact on regional stability” and on U.S. nonproliferation strategy generally. Preventing a South Korean nuclear breakout would require “early cooperation” with allied nuclear suppliers and some use of U.S. “political leverage.”

Document 5: U.S. Embassy Paris telegram 28641 to Department of State, “French Views on Coordination of Nuclear Export Policy,” 29 November 1974, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

During the fall and winter of 1974-1975, State Department and other U.S. government officials held talks with the Soviets, French, British, Canadians, West Germans, and the Japanese on the possibility of a conference of nuclear exporters to regulate exports of sensitive nuclear technology to non-nuclear weapons states. Initially, the French were reluctant to accept U.S. concepts for what became the Nuclear Suppliers Group, but the talks were friendly and a compromise was eventually reached. On the South Korean situation, an important moment occurred when French diplomat Xavier de Nazelle told ACDA director Fred Iklé that they were negotiating the sale of reprocessing plants to Pakistan and the ROK. That was the “first confirmation that the [U.S.] Embassy has received of these deals.” According to another Foreign Ministry official, the talks with Seoul were in an early stage; IAEA safeguards would be required, but they would only cover the reprocessing plant.

Document 6: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 8023 to Department of State, “ROK Plans to Develop Nuclear Weapons and Missiles,” 2 December 1974, Secret, excised copy attached to W. R. Smyser and David Elliott to Secretary Kissinger, “Development of U.S. Policy Toward South Korean Development of Nuclear Weapons,” 28 February 1975, Secret

Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, National Security Adviser Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, Box 9, Korea (4), copy from South Korean Nuclear History Collection, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.

As it had promised, the U.S. embassy in Seoul assembled the sensitive information that it had collected and sent it in a highly classified “NODIS” telegram to the State Department. Apparently State Department officials saw this message as so sensitive that either they did not log it in, or they removed it from, the telegram databases that eventually became available on the National Archives Web site. According to the embassy, the evidence supported the “strong presumption that the Korean government had decided to proceed with the initial phases of a nuclear weapons development program.” Most of the details are excised from this release, even the fact that Seoul had been negotiating with Paris to purchase a reprocessing facility. At the National Security Archive’s request, this document is undergoing a new declassification review.

Document 7: Director of Central Intelligence, National Intelligence Officers, “Status of Work in Progress,” 10 January 1975, Secret, Excised copy, Extract

Source: CIA Research Tool (CREST), National Archives, now on-line at CIA Web Site.

To assess the intelligence on the South Korean nuclear program, the U.S. Intelligence Board commissioned an interagency study on “Potential for South Korean Nuclear Development.” The report, dated 24 January 1975, remains classified, but its conclusion, that South Korea could have a nuclear weapons capability and missile delivery systems within ten years, is cited in the next document. The editors of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series tried to include the report’s conclusions in the volume on Documents on East and Southeast Asia, 1973-1976., but the CIA would not declassify it for that purpose. The report is currently under mandatory declassification review appeal at the CIA.

Document 8: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 1239 to Department of State, “Non-proliferation Treaty,” 26 February 1975, Confidential

Source: RG 59, AAD, mandatory declassification review (MDR) release by NARA

Ambassador Richard Sneider continued to press the South Korean government to ratify the NPT. South Korean officials were more responsive than during the summer, while a Canadian diplomat had informed the embassy that President Park had made a decision to ratify, with official cabinet approval planned for April. According to the Canadians, Park had made the decision “largely because of Canadian pressure in connection with the CANDU reactor sale.”

2. Phase One: Identifying the Problem and Shaping a Strategy

Document 9: State Department telegram 048673 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “ROK Plans to Develop Nuclear Weapons and Missiles,” 4 March 1975, Secret

Source: RG 58, AAD: MDR release by State Department from P-reels

Given the sensitivity and import of the Korean nuclear problem, the State Department coordinated a message to the Embassy with officials at various offices, including Deputy National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and the CIA’s John M. Brasted (an intelligence veteran since 1945). The State Department informed the Embassy in Seoul that it shared its concerns about the ROK’s nuclear ambitions and that an interagency intelligence study had concluded that South Korea could have nuclear weapons and a missile delivery capability within 10 years. Because such a capability would have such a destabilizing impact in the region, “our basic objective is to discourage ROK effort in this area and to inhibit to the fullest possible extent any ROK development of a nuclear explosive capability or a delivery system.” To do so, the U.S. would work to prevent the delivery of sensitive technology to the ROK through unilateral and ongoing multilateral efforts with other nuclear suppliers. In this connection, the sale of CANDU reactors to the ROK was a problem because they “present fewer obstacles for diversion of plutonium bearing fuel rods than do the more common light water reactors.” Moreover, Washington would encourage the ROK to ratify the NPT (which it did the following month) and find ways to enhance its surveillance of ROK’s nuclear energy activities.

Document 10: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 1637 to Department of State, “ROK Plans to Develop Nuclear Weapons and Missiles,” 12 March 1975, Secret, excised copy

Source: Source: RG 59, AAD, MDR release by State Department from P-reels

Ambassador Sneider agreed with the Department’s basic approach except that he believed that an even more “explicit” course of action would be necessary. Given the ROK’s determination to reach its nuclear goals and the “depth” of U.S. concerns, Sneider advised against “pussy-footing” and recommended a “direct, early, and firm” approach.

Document 11: State Department telegram 0135879 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “Korean Reprocessing,” 11 June 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

The Department informed the Embassy that it was handling the reprocessing issue in two phases: the first was “nailing down the rights in our agreements.” Once Washington had spoken with the Canadians and the French, it could make known its “substantive concerns” about the reprocessing deal.

Document 12: U.S. Embassy London telegram 09224 to State Department, “Nuclear Export Policy: Bilateral with Canada,” 17 June 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD, MDR release by NARA

During a meeting of nuclear suppliers in London, where ground rules for export policy were under consideration, Canadian diplomats discussed sensitive cases, including the South Korean, where they “shared U.S. concern.” As part of their negotiations with the ROK over the CANDU reactor sale, the Canadians said they “were insisting on incorporating ‘mutual consent’ provision regarding reprocessing” in connection with the nuclear fuel used in the reactor.

Document 13: U.S. Embassy London telegram 09295 to State Department, “Nuclear Export Policy: Bilateral with France,” 18 June 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD, MDR release by NARA

The French made no objections to the U.S. approach. During the course of talks to establish the Nuclear Suppliers Group, State Department officials informed the French that they would try to discourage the ROK from acquiring a reprocessing capability. In reply, Bertrand Goldschmidt, France’s representative to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, observed that “there wasn’t much money in reprocessing sales and that France would not object to Korean cancellation of the deal if St. Gobain was reimbursed for termination costs.”

Document 14: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 4902 to Department of State, “Canadian/ROK Talks on Nuclear Energy,” 3 July 1975, Confidential

Source: RG 59, AAD

During talks with Canada’s Minister of External Affairs Alan MacEachen, President Park denied that the ROK sought nuclear weapons. Apparently during an earlier conversation with Trade Minister Alistair Gillespie, Park had linked the possible withdrawal of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” to a need for nuclear weapons.

Document 15: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 5016 to Department of State, “Canadian/ROK Talks on Nuclear Energy,” 8 July 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

Washington did not need to ask Ottawa to raise questions about the reprocessing deal because the Canadian parliament was already putting pressure on Canadian diplomats to do so. When Canadian Ambassador Stiles asked a senior Korean official for an explanation of the reprocessing deal he was told that it would process spent fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors. Sneider informed Stiles that Washington had not agreed to any such arrangement. With no response from Seoul to the U.S. query about reprocessing under the U.S.-ROK nuclear agreement, and with the Canadians in the “front running,” Sneider saw an opportunity to “press” the ROK to cancel the contract with the French.

Document 16: John Marcum to Brent Scowcroft, 24 July 1975, enclosing Jan M. Lodal and David Elliott memorandum to Secretary Kissinger, “Approach to South Korea on Reprocessing,” 24 July 1975, Secret, Excised copy

Source: National Security Archive, Don Oberdorfer Papers, box 2, South Korean Nuclear Weapons Program, original at Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Earlier in July, State Department officials sent Kissinger an action memorandum (see attachment to document 17) that received no traction at the White House level; NSC staffers Lodal and Elliott perceived it as a “lengthy advocacy memorandum” that did not “deal with the basic problem of the ROK's perceived need for long term nuclear guarantees and our inability to provide them” or the “problem of French involvement and consistency with our non-proliferation policy.” As Lodal and Elliott noted, those were difficult problems; for example, even if Washington stopped the reprocessing deal, “the basic incentives for ROK nuclear weapons development will remain.” Moreover, Nuclear Supplier Group politics presented complex issues: the French and the West Germans were pushing for less stringent controls over reprocessing exports “than we would impose on South Korea.”

Lodal and Elliott, however, made no recommendation and instead provided Kissinger with two options, for which they identified pros and cons: bilateral pressure to cancel the reprocessing contract or relying on Seoul’s NPT commitments and IAEA safeguards.

Document 17: Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Philip Habib, Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs George Vest, and Policy Planning Staff Director Winston Lord through the Deputy Secretary of State (Ingersoll) to the Secretary of State, “Approach to South Korean on Reprocessing,” circa 4 August 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Records of Policy Planning Staff, Directors Files 1969-1977 (Winston Lord), box 368, WL Sensitive Non-China ‘75

Kissinger had not made up his mind whether to oppose the French-Korean deal and top State Department officials wondered whether he “may have felt that our proposed approach [in the early July memorandum] entailed applying undue pressure on an already uncertain ally.” They did not believe that because “the resolution of the nuclear issue involved is a key factor in ensuring both the stability of the region and our relationship with the ROK.” To make the point even clearer they revised the proposed instructions to Ambassador Sneider in which he would “convey our serious concerns about Korea’s moving in [the] direction” of establishing an independent reprocessing capability.

State Department officials saw a “good possibility that the ROK can be influenced to abandon its present plans for a national reprocessing capability.” For example, key allies with Korean interests were cooperative: the French would have no problem with cancellation as long as they received “a reasonable financial compensation” and the Canadians “have broached their reprocessing concerns” and “strongly support a parallel US approach.” Moreover, Washington was in the process of nailing down its interpretation of the nuclear cooperation agreement with Seoul: that the United States had a “veto over reprocessing of spent fuel from U.S. reactors supplied to Korea.” Within a few weeks, Seoul had accepted the U.S. interpretation, which would have the effect of limiting the supply of spent fuel available for producing plutonium.

3. Phase Two: Diplomatic Pressure

Document 18: State Department telegram 195214 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “ROK Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plans,” 16 August 1975, Secret, Excised copy

Source: Digital National Security Archive

Kissinger signed off on the State Department recommendation (Document 16); facilitating the decision was that the French and the Canadians accepted U.S. thinking about the necessity to cancel the reprocessing deal, the U.S. Congress was treating cancellation as a condition for Export-Import banks loans to finance reactor sales to the ROK, and Seoul was in agreement with the U.S. interpretation of the nuclear cooperation agreement. Accordingly, the State Department advised the embassy that it was “timely to execute [the] second phase of [the] approach.” The ambassador was to convey “serious concern” about South Korea’s plans to develop a reprocessing facility. Even a pilot plant could have “destabilizing” implications for the region. Noting that it was “expensive, complicated, and risky” to build a national plant, the U.S. government was willing to support talks for a multinational reprocessing facility if other countries in the region, such as Japan, agreed that it was commercially necessary. Sneider could also warn the ROK that Congress would reject Eximbank loans to underwrite nuclear reactors for the ROK should the latter go ahead with it reprocessing plans.

Document 19: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 6495 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plans,” 23 August 1975, Secret

Source: Digital National Security Archive

Meeting with Minister of Science and Technology Choe Hyung Sup, Ambassador Sneider explained that, in the interests of continued U.S.-Korean nuclear cooperation, Washington wanted Seoul to cancel its plans to acquire a reprocessing plant. Choe “expressed surprise” at the request and told Sneider that Seoul was interested in the plant as a “learning tool,” not for its production capabilities. The minister promised to provide information on the French plant. Several days later, Sneider delivered the same message to the acting foreign minister, No Sin-yong.

Document 20: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 6608 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plans,” 26 August 1975, Secret

Source: Digital National Security Archive

Showing “some resentment,” top officials from the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute explained why they sought reprocessing technology: to help provide training in fuel element fabrication for ROK nuclear scientists. The reprocessing laboratory was a “training facility, not a production or pilot plant.” They are “not willing to accept anything less than a laboratory of kind purchased from France.” Having been trained in the United States, Korean nuclear scientists spoke English, not French, and preferred a “close relationship” with the U.S. so they could provide assurances that they were not “cheating.” Further, they questioned “whether the U.S. can impose a policy on Korea which forbids Korea entry into a legitimate business aspect of nuclear power.”

Document 21: State Department telegram 213134 to U.S. Embassy London, 8 September 1975, Secret, forwarding U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 6989 to Department of State, “Nuclear Reprocessing Plant,” 8 September 1975, Secret, Excised copy

Source: RG 59, AAD, MDR release by NARA

Meeting with Ambassador Sneider, Acting Foreign Minister Lho Shing-yong rejected the U.S. demand. Reviewing the recent history of Korea’s nuclear energy program, outlined in a subsequent embassy message, Lho argued that Washington had “failed to respond” to queries by the ROK about reprocessing. He also declared that the proposed facility was strictly for “study and research purposes” and that even Japan was doing the “same thing” even though it had not yet signed the NPT. Cancelling the contract was “impossible” if Seoul was to “maintain credibility” with France. Sneider replied that the ROK was “now jeopardizing” the U.S. loan for the Kori II reactor and “possible future support for Korean nuclear energy program.”

Document 22: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 74642 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plant,” 30 September 1975, Secret

 Source: RG 59, AAD

In this long message, Sneider reviewed recent meetings with senior Korean officials who had taken an “unequivocally negative” response to the U.S. proposal. Sneider tried to make the case that U.S. objections were non-discriminatory and that Washington had offered “constructive carrots” for future cooperation, but he made no headway. For example, given that the Japanese were buying a much larger reprocessing plant from the French, they wondered why Washington was “singling out” Korea. Choe Hyung Sop argued that U.S. push for cancellation meant that Washington did not “trust” ROK. Sneider concluded that trust was a “critical issue” and that the “differential treatment” between Korea and Japan “clearly sticks in Korea’s craw.” Washington might need to “exert maximum leverage … in [a] direct confrontation with President Park.”

Document 23: State Department telegram 238186 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “Washington Visit of MOST Atomic Energy Bureau,” 6 October 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

While the Ford administration was considering the next step, Lee Young White, a senior official at the Ministry of Science and Technology was in Washington. While restating the ROK case for the reprocessing plant, Lee mentioned that Seoul had been in touch with the Japanese about the possibility of a regional reprocessing facility, but that Tokyo’s interest had “cooled” when a new minister of science had come into office. When speaking with Lee, the acting assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment, and science (OES), Myron Kratzer, emphasized the U.S.’s general concern about the spread of national reprocessing facilities as well as particular concerns about the Korean project. When Lee asserted that the reprocessing facility would have IAEA safeguards and would be “open to U.S. inspectors,” Kratzer declared that the basic U.S. concern was not the efficacy of safeguards but a “plutonium facility physically present” in South Korea.

4. Strengthened Pressure and Korean Defiance

Document 24: State Department telegram 240692 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “Deputy Secretary Ingersoll’s Meeting with Ambassador Hahm of Korea,” 9 October 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

As Seoul had not made a final response to U.S. demands, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ingersoll tried to “reinforce” the U.S. position during a meeting with Ambassador Hahm Pyong Choon Both sides made familiar arguments, with U.S. officials arguing against the Korean reprocessing plant on economic and technical grounds; they further noted, contrary to Hahm’s assertion that the plant was too small to produce weapons material, that if it operated without interruption for a year it could produce 20 kilograms of plutonium (the equivalent of about 3 “Fat Man” implosion bombs). To Hahm’s argument that the reprocessing plant could be brought into a multinational scheme at the beginning, State Department officials responded that studies for a multinational plant should be made without prejudice to location and that a small plant could produce no useful knowledge for the necessary regional studies. When Hahm argued that U.S. policy discriminated in favor of Japan because it had made no objection to Japanese reprocessing plans, State Department officials countered that Japan had made its plans years earlier when studies of the potential for reprocessing were more optimistic, that Japan had a much bigger nuclear program, and that locating a reprocessing plant in the Korean peninsula was strategically very different. 

During the conversation, Hahm conceded that the point about plutonium production was “devastating,” and further acknowledged that if Washington was insistent on cancellation that it “might be necessary” for Seoul to do so.

Document 25: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 8278 to Department of State, “ROKG Rejects Our Representations on Nuclear Reprocessing,” 24 October 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

Reprising the role that he played on 8 September, Acting Foreign Minister Lho Shing-yong informed Sneider that his government “had decided that it would be impossible to cancel [the] French contract at this stage.” After Lho made his points about Japan, “study purposes only,” and undue U.S. suspicion, Sneider expressed deep disappointment. As for the comparison with Japan, Sneider pointed to the “real differences:” Japan “was not on the DMZ,” while with Korea Washington had to take into account Chinese, Soviet, and North Korean reactions. Lho believed that Washington would “find a way” to work with the ROK in nuclear energy, but Sneider had “serious doubts.”

5. “Renewed Urgency”

Document 26: Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Philip Habib and Policy Planning Staff director Winston Lord through the Deputy Secretary of State (Ingersoll) to the Secretary of State, “Korean Reprocessing – the Next Step,” with attached study, “Korean Reprocessing: Issues and Options,” 18 November 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Records of Policy Planning Staff, Directors Files 1969-1977 (Winston Lord), box 369, Nov 16-30, 1975

Worried that Seoul would move forward with Paris in carrying out the reprocessing contract and even purchase reactors from France, Kissinger’s advisers saw “renewed urgency” in trying to solve the problem. They saw several basic options, including a moratorium on accepting the plant under “special constraints,” but the option the State Department bureaus favored was strengthened opposition accompanied by seeking help from Canada and France. The Canadians would be asked to “take a complementary approach” in trying to dissuade Seoul from going ahead with the contract while Washington requested Paris to avoid “early implementation” of the contract. Seeing an “element of bluff” in the ROK position, Habib and Lord favored maintaining “our pressure in order to force the Koreans to fully face up to the risks of their present course of action.”

If opposition failed, a moratorium was available as a fall-back: it would be a “face-saving way” for Park to “back down, while buying us time to engage the ROKG in a dialogue on its future nuclear energy needs.” The report included two moratorium options, but if all else failed, the “minimum results” would be “deferring or constraining” a reprocessing facility through inspections and safeguards.

Document 27: State Department telegram 280819 to U.S. Embassy Tokyo and U.S. Embassy Seoul, “Japanese Embassy Approach on ROK Nuclear Reprocessing Facility,” 27 November 1975

Source: RG 59, AAD, MDR release by NARA

With U.S. concern about the French deal reaching the press, the Government of Japan became aware of the Seoul-Washington talks and approached the State Department for background. For a briefing, political counselor Mitsuro Donowaki met with James Goodby, deputy director of the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs. While Goodby avoided some sensitive details, including the Canadian role in the matter, he conveyed the basic U.S. concern about the reprocessing deal: the pilot plant’s capacity to produce enough plutonium that it “could be …. significant for weapons purposes.” He further noted that Japan “should be aware” that South Korea was “very conscious” of Japan’s reprocessing facility and believed that Washington was discriminating against Seoul its treatment of the French-Korea deal. That aspect, Goodby observed, “highlights our mutual interest with Japan in supporting a multinational regional alternative.”

Apparently taken aback by the briefing, Donowaki “said if there was real possibility of ROK developing nuclear weapons this would pose serious problem for Japan.” He asked how long the negotiations would take, but Goodby could only say, correctly, that the talks were continuing. He emphasized that Seoul’s interest in a “national reprocessing plant points up need for serious discussions between US and Japan” on that subject.

Document 28: State Department telegram 283167 to U.S. Delegation, “Korean Reprocessing,” 2 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Nodis Telegrams 1975, box 6

On 2 December, while traveling with President Ford in China, Kissinger decided in favor of “strengthened opposition” through an initial approach to the Prime Minister and “if necessary” President Park. Kissinger wanted to see how that developed before making decisions on a moratorium option.

*Thanks to Robert Wampler and Gregory Graves for their helpful suggestions.


[1]. Robert Einhorn and Duyeon Kim, “Will South Korea Go Nuclear,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Lee Byong-Chul, “Preventing a Nuclear South Korea,” 38 North. For a different perspective, see James Van Der Velde, “Go Ahead. Let Japan and South Korea Go Nuclear,” The National Interest. For six to nine months, see Lee Young-Wan, “6 Months to Produce Fissile Materials, 6-9 Months to Develop a Detonation Device ... South Korea Could Arm Itself With a Nuclear Weapon in 1.5 Years,” The Chosun Ilbo (19 February 2016), [Korean]; English translation by Raymond Ha, Nonproliferation Education Policy Center, information courtesy of Gregory Graves. For an estimate of 18 months see Matthew McKinzie, “East Asian Nuclearization: Is Trump Wrong?” Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (4 May, 2016)

[2]. Don-Won Kim, “Imaginary Savior: The Image of the Nuclear Bomb in Korea, 1945-1960,”
Historia Scientiarum: International Journal of the History of Science Society of Japan 19 (2009): 105-118.

 [3], Se Young Jan, “The Evolution of US Extended Deterrence and South Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions,” Journal of Strategic Studies 39 (2016): 502-520. See also Lyong Choi, “The First Nuclear Crisis in the Korean Peninsula, 1975–76,” Cold War History 14 (2014): 71-90, which traces Park’s decision to his uncertainty about U.S. guarantees after the April 1975 collapse of South Vietnam. For the context of South Korean nuclear decision-making, see Kim Seong-Jun, “Technology Transfer behind a Diplomatic Struggle: Reappraisal of South Korea's Nuclear Fuel Project in the 1970s,” Historia Scientiarum: International Journal of the History of Science Society of Japan 19 (2009): 184-193. An essay by Gregory Graves (George Washington University), "Park's Play: International Diplomacy and South Korea's Attempt to 'Go Nuclear,'" Journal of American East Asian Relations (forthcoming), is an important contribution to knowledge of this episode.

[4]. For a useful early account, see Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History Revised and Updated (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 68-72.

[5]. Choi, “The First Nuclear Crisis in the Korean Peninsula, 1975–76,” 21.

[6]. Joseph Pilat, “Exploring Nuclear Latency,” Report of a Workshop, 2 October 2014, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

[7]. Yoichi Funabashi, The Peninsula Question: A Chronicle of the Second Korean Nuclear Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2007), 145.