35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Stopping Korea from Going Nuclear, Part II

Ambassador Richard Sneider meeting with President Park Chung-hee at the Blue House, undated. During the U.S.-Korean nuclear controversy, Sneider communicated U.S. opposition to the reprocessing deal with the French and spearheaded efforts to persuade the Park regime to give up the contract. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Charles Sneider)

Published: Apr 12, 2017
Briefing Book #584

Edited by William Burr

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

Canada, France, U.S. Cooperated to Halt Seoul's Ambitions

South Korean Leaders Denied Military Aims But Climbed Down from Plan to Acquire Plutonium Production Capability

CIA Officer Richard Lawless Discovered Secret Nuclear Program, Noting “Something Is Clearly Afoot” In Early 1975

Washington, D.C., April 12, 2017 – The Ford administration had to use a combination of approaches to keep South Korea’s Park dictatorship from going forward with a suspected nuclear weapons program in the mid-1970s, according to documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.

The U.S. effort required strong bilateral political pressure, along with Canadian and French government collaboration, to stop Seoul from quietly acquiring a reprocessing plant that could have been used to produce weapons grade plutonium.

Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who may have doubted whether Seoul had a weapons program in mind, praised the outcome, agreeing with Canadian Foreign Minister Alan MacEachen that the allies had delivered a “knockout blow” against the South Korean nuclear plans.

* * * * *

During 1975 and early 1976 the South Korean and U.S. governments were involved in a protracted controversy over Seoul’s efforts to purchase sensitive nuclear technology. Strongly suspecting a covert nuclear weapons program, Washington pressed the defiant South Koreans to cancel a contract with a French firm for a reprocessing plant that could be used to produce plutonium. In a mid-December 1975 report, published today for the first time by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, Ambassador Richard Sneider informed the State Department that talks with top South Korean officials were showing a “little daylight.” Although never acknowledging that they had been seeking a nuclear capability, the South Koreans were more responsive to Sneider’s argument that a weapons program would jeopardize “mutual interests.” According to Sneider, senior South Korean officials asked how Washington could assist in meeting their “peaceful nuclear ambitions” through various technical services, including the fabrication of nuclear fuel. A “technical agreement,” he suggested, was a “better face-saver than political arguments.”

That South Korea had been a close U.S. ally for years created a difficult situation for the Ford administration. As the declassified sources indicate, it took months for Washington to grapple with the situation and to make a decision to confront South Korean officials in secret and convey U.S. opposition to the reprocessing deal with the French. That Park’s disappointment in U.S. decisions to withdraw an Army division from Korean peninsula had motivated the secret nuclear program made the situation all the more fraught. While Secretary of State Kissinger objected to applying pressure on President Park over human rights violations, under his watch the State Department and Ambassador Sneider persisted in making demands to the South Koreans on their nuclear program.

As far as can be told, U.S. officials never directly discussed the nuclear issue with South Korean “president for life” General Park Chung-hee; instead they dealt with his top subordinates who demonstrated a strong commitment to acquiring the reprocessing plant. While discussion with some, such as Ambassador Pyong Choon Hahm, revealed doubts about the nuclear plans, it took a complex and prolonged series of maneuvers, including close cooperation with allies, to bring the South Koreans to the point where they would accept cancellation of the French plant. Canada played an especially crucial role by delaying the signing of a nuclear reactor sales agreement with South Korea until Seoul provided more information on its reprocessing plans. A decisive moment occurred when Ottawa informed Seoul that as a condition for the reactor, the reprocessing plant could not be built. Once he learned that from Canadian Foreign Minister MacEachen, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed with him that the Canadian action had been a “knock-out blow.”

The setback on the French reprocessing plant notwithstanding, the Park regime tried to evade the understandings with Canada and the United States by acquiring reprocessing capabilities through backdoor arrangements. According to a July 1976 telegram from the U.S. Embassy in France, French diplomats had reported that Taiwanese intermediaries had been trying to secure reprocessing technology for Seoul from the French, who rejected the attempted purchase. This attempt is consistent with a South Korean account that General Park’s secret 890 project did not conclude until the end of 1976. As a dictator who ruled by decree, Park could switch gears on the nuclear weapons program without having to consult any representative body.

Documents published today include newly released records from the files of Ambassador Richard Sneider as well as reports on developments during the final stages of the U.S.-South Korean nuclear controversy:

  • A message drafted in early 1975 by CIA officer Richard Lawless indicating that new evidence about South Korea’s commitment to acquiring a reprocessing facility demonstrated that “something is clearly afoot.” Lawless played a key role in detecting the secret South Korean nuclear program.
  • Ambassador Sneider’s report of his meeting in September 1975 with Deputy Prime Minister Nam who said that President Park did not yet know about the extent of U.S. objections to the reprocessing deal and that Nam would meet with senior officials to discuss how to tell Park the bad news.
  • State Department plans to persuade the French and Canadian governments to add to the pressure on Seoul to cancel the reprocessing contract. Deputy Secretary of State Robert S. Ingersoll would ask the Canadian embassy to consider the “leverage Canada might effectively bring to bear in the nuclear area, for example, with regard to nuclear reactor sales or credits.”
  • South Korea’s concern about Japanese reprocessing. According to Ambassador Sneider, Washington’s failure to object to Japan’s developing capabilities “sticks in Korean craw.” He advised greater emphasis on the differences between the two situations – a relatively secure Japan compared to South Korea’s precarious location – and the current U.S. effort to draw Japan into a regional reprocessing arrangement.
  • A meeting between Ambassador Sneider and Prime Minister Kim Chong-pil, the founder of the Korean CIA. Denying that South Korea wanted nuclear weapons, Kim argued that the ROK sought the French plant for peaceful purposes only and that guarantees about inspections should meet U.S. concerns. Kim “could not understand U.S. suspicions” because as long as Park and he were in charge nothing would be done to endanger U.S. interests.”
  • Meetings between a U.S. envoy, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Myron Kratzer, and South Korean officials during January 1976 in which Kratzer offered the Koreans carrots consisting of further U.S.-Korean nuclear cooperation if Seoul cancelled the reprocessing contract.
  • The French role in thwarting South Korean nuclear ambitions. According to the Canadian ambassador to South Korea, when he mentioned to Deputy Foreign Minister Nam that the French contract to sell the reprocessing plant had been “postponed,” Nam replied that it “was more than postponement,” it was “cancellation.”

As successful as diplomatic pressures and negotiations were in preventing Seoul from acquiring a reprocessing facility, the South Korean nuclear story was far from over. Washington remained concerned that Seoul would carry out secret nuclear research and South Korean efforts to develop secret capabilities relevant to the production of nuclear weapons persisted. In 2004, as part of its commitments under the Additional Protocols of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the South Korean government acknowledged that it had engaged in the following activities: conducting chemical enrichment of uranium during 1979-1981; separating small amounts of plutonium in the early 1980s; fashioning depleted uranium armaments during 1983-1987; and experimenting with uranium enrichment in 2000. These activities were in violation of agreements with the IAEA and the United States and other governments. Whatever Seoul’s purposes were for conducting the experiments, that they had to disclose them was embarrassing to the South Korean government. The latter publicly disavowed any intent to develop or possess nuclear weapons and reaffirmed its interest in peaceful nuclear development, although it did not close any doors to future reprocessing activities.[1]

As with Part I of this posting, the documents are from a variety of sources:

  1. 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)
  2. A declassified collection of paper copies of State Department “Nodis” [No Distribution”] telegrams for 1975, opened up at NARA at the request of the National Security Archive,
  3. Other State Department collections at the National Archives
  4. Documents from Digital National Security Archive collections, Korea, 1969-2000, and Korea II, 1969-2010, edited by Robert Wampler
  5. Documents from the files of Ambassador Richard Sneider, recently opened by the National Declassification Center at the National Archives in response to a request from the National Security Archive. Some of the documents found in the Sneider records are included in the opening “Background” section because they provide context for developments covered in both Parts I and II of this posting.

As noted in Part I of this posting, important documents on the final stages of the negotiations remain classified. For example, the declassified record illuminates the Canadian role in concerting strategy and tactics with Washington. The Paris-Washington interaction is murky because the details of important communications are classified. In addition, the records of some meetings with South Korean officials during the final stages of the negotiations are classified. Future responses by the State Department and the National Archives to mandatory declassification review requests by the National Security Archive, however, are likely to elucidate those and other developments.

1. Background

Document 1: Ambassador Richard Sneider to Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Philip Habit, 29 November 1974, Secret, enclosing telegram and memorandum of conversation about golf outing with President Park, 24 November 1974

Source: National Archives, Department of State Records, Record Group 59 (RG 59, Records of Ambassador Richard Sneider, box 2, Correspondence – EA Only

A few days after meeting with President Ford, President Park played golf with high level Korean officials, including the Korean CIA chief, and three U.S. officials – Ambassador Sneider, CIA station chief Donald Gregg (the special assistant to the ambassador), and Commander, U.S. Forces Korea, General Richard Stilwell. Most of the conversation was between Park and Sneider on a range of issues: the succession to Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka (who was not one of Park’s favorites), whether North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung had a serious health problem, that both Park and Sneider had warned of a North Korean attack in June 1950, and whether Park saw a parallel between his life and the Turkish modernizer Kemal Pasha (Attaturk). Park said that he wanted to complete South Korea’s modernization but expressed some regret that he had not resigned earlier, as some had advised, because holding on to power for so long had led to the assassination attempt a few months earlier in which his wife had been killed.

Noting that he had stopped drinking after his wife’s murder, Park said that if he quit smoking all that he would have left to do was watch television. According to Sneider, he “clearly left the impression of a man lonely, anxious for companionship, but too aloof to arrange for it except on occasions such as the golf match and dinner.”

Documents 2A-B: “Something is Clearly Afoot”

Document 2A: U.S. Embassy Seoul Telegram 1089 to State Department, “ROK Nuclear Program,” 20 February 1975, Secret

Document 2B: Draft Telegram to State Department Intelligence and Research [RCI], 3 March 1975, Secret

Source: A: Source: RG 59, Access to Archival Databases (AAD) 1975; B: RG 59, Richard Sneider records, box 2, Ambassador-Eyes Only

As it had been well over two months since the Seoul Embassy sent its December 1974 report on the South Korean nuclear program [See Part I, document 6], Sneider sent Assistant Secretary of State Habib what amounted to a reminder to authorize a reply. Citing unidentified “special intelligence” along with information from a meeting between General Electric (GE) and Korean officials, Sneider probably used the special “Roger” channel through which embassies communicated directly with State Department’s INR. According to the message, something was “clearly afoot” and South Korea was determined to achieve the weapons capability discussed in the December 1974 report. The GE officials had reported their impression that for the South Koreans “reprocessing was out of [the] idea stage and now a definite plan.” On the basis of various intelligence indicators Sneider reported that the plant sought by Seoul could reprocess 22 kilograms of spent fuel daily. The ambassador’s reminder may have helped; on 4 March 1975, the State Department informed Sneider that the agencies were considering options to address the nuclear problem [See Part I, document 9].

The “afoot” message was drafted by Richard P. Lawless, then a junior officer at the CIA station in Seoul; this is the only archival evidence that has surfaced of his work on the South Korean nuclear program. According to one account, piqued by recent reports, Lawless decided something indeed was afoot and, supported by station chief Donald Gregg, followed up the clues. Within a matter of months, not only had Lawless discovered that the Park regime had set up a secret organization at the Blue House to direct the weapons program, he also obtained an “abundance of confidential documents” from a member of the group. After leaving the CIA in the 1980s and some years in private business, Lawless served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security during the George W. Bush administration.[2]

Document 3: U.S. Embassy Seoul Telegram 1089 to State Department, “French Arms and Nuclear-Related Sales to the ROK,” 7 March 1975, Secret

Source: Sneider records, box 2, Amb. Sneider Telegrams – January-April 1975

During a conversation with Sneider, French Ambassador to South Korea Pierre Landy shared his strong doubts about France’s sale of Exocet anti-ship missiles to South Korea. On the sale of the nuclear reprocessing plant to Seoul, Landy observed that his “government is seeking to act cautiously and responsibly in this field.” Sneider had the impression that the French were open to cooperation with Washington to “maintain close controls” over sales of “advanced weapons and nuclear material,” as long as competition was “open” in non-sensitive areas.

Document 4: U.S. Embassy Seoul Telegram 3090 to State Department, “Meeting with President Park: Missile Strategy,” 1 May 1975, Secret

Source: Sneider records, box 2, Amb. Sneider Telegrams – May-July 1975

Worried about the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, President Park discussed with Sneider his plans to develop missile production capabilities to provide the means for attacking North Korean air bases and urban centers in event of war. Sneider observed that the U.S. kept close control over missile technology because it wanted to preserve its “strong competitive advantage;” nevertheless, “decisions on individual items” could be discussed. Giving an overview of South Korean defense objectives, Park asserted that he had “no plans to develop nuclear weapons,” but wanted missile forces ready ahead of U.S. withdrawal. In his comments, Sneider emphasized the importance of providing Seoul with a “sense of security” while at the same time “avoiding risks of NK-SK escalation in missiles and other areas of high technology.”

Document 5: U.S. Embassy Seoul Telegram 6850 to State Department, “ROK Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plans,” 3 September 1975, Secret

Source: Sneider records, box 2, Amb. Sneider Telegrams-August-December 1975

A week after Sneider made his demarche to the South Koreans about the reprocessing plant [see Part I, Document 19], Deputy Prime Minister Nam Duk Woo shared his concerns during a frank discussion with the ambassador. Apparently, President Park did not yet know about the U.S. concern and Nam was worried about his reactions when “he is fully informed.” He would have to meet with the prime minister and other top officials to “discuss the problem.” Nam mentioned the “strong resistance” from scientists to the U.S. demand for cancellation noting that reprocessing was considered “necessary technical training” for a regional reprocessing facility. (Sneider observed in his message that the embassy had inside information that Minister of Science and Technology (MOST) Choe saw his career “at stake” in the outcome of the controversy.) Nam did not understand why the U.S. was concerned because the reprocessing plant had such limited capabilities that it was only a “toy.” Noting that South Korean officials resented “U.S. arm twisting,” he wanted to avoid a “confrontation” and was willing to make a “case” for accepting the U.S. position.

Document 6: U.S. Embassy Seoul Telegram 8074 to State Department, “Nuclear Developments,” 16 October 1975, Secret

Source: Sneider records, box 1, Amb. Sneider Telegrams- Chron August-December 1975

After attending a presidential reception, Sneider reported on a conversation with Deputy Prime Minister Nam and Presidential Secretary Kim Chong-yom who declared that Seoul’s position on the nuclear deal remained “firm” despite the recent demarche from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ingersoll [See Part I, Document 24]. Nam insisted that with safeguards, the reprocessing plant would not be under “exclusive” South Korean control and that even joint U.S.-Korean operation would be possible, but Sneider restated Washington’s political and technical objections.


2. Renewed Pressure

Document 7: State Department telegram 230171 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 4 December 1975, Secret, Excised copy

Source: State Department mandatory declassification review (MDR) release from P-reels

With U.S.-South Korean discussions of the reprocessing plant stalemated by the end of November 1975, the State Department sent Ambassador Sneider new instructions to counter Seoul’s objections. Invoking Secretary of State Kissinger’s name, Sneider was to convey the U.S. message first to Prime Minister Kim, but if a favorable reply did not arrive within a week, he was to take the message to President Park. When conveying it, Sneider was instructed to make the point that failure to cancel the reprocessing plant would lead Washington to withdraw the request for the Export-Import Bank loan for Kori-2 and to forbid the reprocessing of U.S.-derived nuclear fuel, and would “seriously affect” future U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation. In addition, any future South Korean action to separate and stockpile plutonium “would seriously affect our security and political relationship” and have an “unsettling” impact in the region. Should Seoul cancel the reprocessing plant, the United States could offer nuclear cooperation in a number of areas, including low-enriched fuel fabrication, increased access to non-sensitive technology, and “commensurate training opportunities for Korean scientists.”

Document 8: Policy Planning Staff director Winston Lord and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Robert H. Miller to Deputy Secretary of State, “Your Meetings with the French and Canadian Ambassadors on Korean Reprocessing,” 4 December 1975, Secret

Source: Department of State Records, Record Group 59, National Archives and Records Administration (RG 59), Records of the Policy Planning Staff, Director's Files (Winston Lord), 1969-1977, box 359, Dec 1-15, 1975

With Deputy Secretary Ingersoll about to meet with the Canadian and the French ambassadors for discussions of Korea, senior State Department officials prepared talking points for the discussions. Ingersoll was to share with both ambassadors intelligence perspectives on South Korean nuclear ambitions as part of his broader attempt to persuade them to support the U.S. case for cancellation. For example, Ingersoll could ask Canadian Ambassador Jack Warren to consider the “leverage Canada might effectively bring to bear in the nuclear area, for example, with regard to nuclear reactor sales or credits and an explicit denial of ROK national reprocessing of Canadian fuel.” Moreover, if Canada was willing to support the U.S. demand for cancellation of the reprocessing plant, the Canadian ambassador in Seoul could coordinate the demarche with Ambassador Sneider

Document 9: State Department telegram 288551 to U.S. Delegation, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing Plant Negotiation,” 6 December 1975, Secret

Source: State Department MDR release from P-reels

With Kissinger still in Asia, Acting Secretary of State Ingersoll met with French Ambassador Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet in order to keep Paris “fully informed” about the ROK nuclear problem. Briefing the ambassador about the ROK’s objectives and the reprocessing plant’s capability to produce weapons grade plutonium, Ingersoll explained that Seoul had rejected U.S. requests to cancel the reprocessing deal. Kosciusko-Morizet observed that he would send a report to Paris immediately, noting that President Giscard d’Estaing was “personally interested.”

Document 10: State Department telegram 288550 to U.S. Delegation, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing Plant Negotiation,” 6 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Nodis Telegrams, box 6

That same day, Ingersoll met with Canadian Ambassador Warren and told him about the ROK’s “covert” nuclear weapons program, the failed entreaties to Korean officials, and the plans to approach the prime minister and possibly President Park. After Ingersoll expressed hope that the Canadian government would “express serious concern” about the reprocessing facility, Warren said he would convey U.S. thinking to Ottawa. He further noted that the Canada-ROK negotiations over the CANDU reactor were in a “delicate stage” with signing scheduled during the next few days. In response to Warren’s question, Ingersoll noted that the French had been cooperative by agreeing “not to hasten” talks with the ROK on the reprocessing plant.

Documents 11A-B: Habib Delivers Messages

Document 11A: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9439 to State Department, “Asst Sec Habib Meeting with President Park,” 9 December 1975, Secret

Document 11B: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9437 to State Department, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 9 December 1975, Secret

Source: A: Sneider records, box 1, box 2, Amb. Sneider Telegrams-August-December 1975; B: State Department MDR release from P-reels

In the midst of the negotiations, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Habib arrived in Seoul to brief President Park on President Ford’s recent meetings with the Chinese leadership during his trip to Beijing. According to Habib, an “interesting nuance” in the talks occurred when the Chinese Vice Premier “clearly indicated” that Beijing did not expect a North Korean attack, which led Washington to believe that China was having a “moderating influence” on North Korea. Habib and Park continued to discuss whether China accepted the status quo in the Korean peninsula and the meaning of Chinese public statements about Korean issues. Immediately after meeting with Park, Habib saw presidential secretary Kim Chom-yong, with whom he discussed the “major importance” of the reprocessing problem and the need to cancel the contract with the French.

Document 12: State Department telegram 289656 to U.S. Embassy Tokyo et al., forwarding U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9440, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 9 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Access to Archival Databases (AAD), MDR release by NARA

The same day as the Habib-Park meeting, Sneider met with Prime Minister Kim Chong-pil and relayed the talking points developed in the Department’s 4 December message. Kim was founder of the Korean CIA and helped organize the coup that brought Park to power. In response to Sneider, he stressed the importance of the security relationship with Washington to Korea’s survival, and denied that the ROK had a nuclear weapons program. Noting his government’s concern over the Japanese reprocessing project, Kim argued that the ROK sought the French plant for peaceful purposes only and that guarantees about inspections should meet U.S. concerns. In that connection, Kim “could not understand U.S. suspicions” because as long as Park and he were in charge nothing would be done to endanger U.S. interests. Sneider restated U.S. apprehensions about the reprocessing plant, which threatened promising opportunities for “wide scale U.S/ROK cooperation in nuclear and scientific areas.” After the prime minister said that his government would review the U.S. proposal Sneider told him that he would take the matter up with President Park directly if he did not receive a reply in a week. Only days later Park removed Kim from office, possibly seeing him as a potential rival for power.

Document 13: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9487 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 10 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Nodis Telegrams, box 6

Taking his conversation with the prime minister into account, Sneider recommended a high-level approach to Ambassador Hahm in Washington with emphasis on the “adverse impact” on the broader U.S.-ROK relationship if Seoul went forward with the reprocessing deal. On the question of the Japanese reprocessing project, Sneider had the impression that Washington’s failure to object “sticks in Korean craw.” He advised greater emphasis on the differences between the two situations and the current U.S. effort to draw Japan into a regional reprocessing arrangement.

Document 14: State Department telegram 291712 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing Plant,” 10 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Nodis Telegrams, box 6

Ingersoll reported to Sneider that the Canadian ploy was working: Ottawa had decided to hold off on the signing of the CANDU reactor sale to Seoul, telling Korean officials that ministerial schedules prevented action before January. Moreover, the Canadians were going to ask the ROK

for information on their reprocessing plans. These actions were not easy for the Canadians because they had postponed the signing at “the eleventh hour on such short notice” and “a sharp ROK reaction” was expected. During conversations with Warren, Ingersoll and Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs George Vest told him that were grateful for the “rapid and helpful Canadian response.”

Document 15: State Department telegram 293834 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “Acting Secretary Discusses Nuclear Reprocessing with Korean Ambassador,” 12 December 1975, Secret

Source: State Department MDR release from P-reels

A meeting with Ambassador Hahm showed that he was uncomfortable with an adamant position. Ingersoll and State Department associates rejected Seoul’s economic and technical arguments and emphasized the dangers of the reprocessing plant for U.S.-ROK “mutual interests.” In reply, Hahm offered U.S. “participation and control” of the facility and raised again the problem of the Japanese reprocessing plant. Showing an interest in conciliation, Hahm raised the possibility that Washington offer a “concrete fuel fabrication proposal which would allow ROKG to cancel the reprocessing deal.” When Ingersoll showed interest, Hahm “backed away” because he was acting without instructions.

3. Starting to Climb Down

Document 16: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9662 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 16 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Nodis Telegrams, box 6

Discussions with MOST’s vice minister, Yi Chong-sok, and Presidential Secretary-General

Kim Chom-yom suggested that Seoul was starting to climb down from the reprocessing deal. Meeting with Sneider, Vice Minister Yi sought “concrete information” about possible U.S. nuclear aid if Seoul decided to cancel the reprocessing deal. Yi asked specific questions about support for fuel fabrication, regional reprocessing, support and training, enrichment services, and loans for power reactors. Sneider answered as best as he could on the spot but acknowledged that full answers would take time. Seeing some possibility that the Koreans were “stalling us” he also suggested that for Seoul a technical agreement was a “a better face-saver than political arguments.”

Conversations with Kim Chom-yom also indicated a “little daylight.” Seoul would hold off any action on the reprocessing plant until Washington had replied to Yi’s questions. Moreover, Park “was fully aware of the high political stakes involved” and would ensure that the reprocessing issue received “the fullest reconsideration” in light of the U.S. reply. Given those circumstances, Sneider wrote that we “have little to lost [sic] and a lot to gain” by giving the South Koreans detailed information on how much more Washington can further their “peaceful nuclear ambitions” than France can.

Document 17: State Department telegram 295 to U.S. Embassy Tokyo et al., forwarding U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9661, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing Plant: Canadian Approach,” 16 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, Nodis Telegrams, box 6

After he had spoken with Yi, Sneider met with Canadian ambassador Stiles who told him that he had instructions to explain to the foreign minister the delayed signing of the CANDU reactor deal. During the conversation, Stiles was going to observe that neither Washington nor Ottawa were going to consent to reprocessing of spent fuel from the reactors they had supplied; therefore, his government wished to know “what nuclear materials will be available for reprocessing in French plant.” Stiles wanted to be kept informed of Korean responses and would “await signal before making approach.”

Document 18: Memorandum of conversation, 17 December 1975, 10:45 a.m., Hotel Raphael, Paris, Secret

Source: RG 59, Records of the Counselor, 1955-1977, box 3, HS-Official Oct.-Dec. 1975, also available on Digital National Security Archive

Meeting with Kissinger in Paris, Canadian Minister of External Affairs MacEachen informed him of Ottawa’s postponement of the reactor deal because of concerns raised by the United States. Kissinger reacted as if he disagreed with the intelligence or was not completely up-to-speed with it, questioning “whether [the South Koreans] have such an intention” (weapons program), but agreed to provide the Canadians with more information. Kissinger confirmed that if Seoul went ahead with the reprocessing plan, that U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation would stop.

Document 19: State Department telegram 299089 to U.S. Embassy Paris, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing Plans,” 19 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

Worried that Yi’s questions were a distraction, the State Department instructed Sneider to go ahead and schedule an appointment with Park so that it was understood at the “highest levels” that they had to “address [the] fundamental political issue” of whether they would go ahead on reprocessing over U.S. objection. Before Washington elaborated on “future U.S. nuclear assistance in non-sensitive areas” it wanted “prior ROK assurances” on reprocessing.

Document 20: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9813 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 22 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

In response to the instructions to make an appointment with President Park, Sneider responded that he was willing to do so but believed that he should present Park with answers to Yi’s questions. Not only had the Koreans asked that the United States do so, he believed that it would be easier for Park to reverse his position on “ostensibly technical grounds.” Moreover, given Park’s “nationalist bent,” a refusal to address Yi’s questions could “trigger emotional and admittedly irrational reaction of trying to push ahead with reprocessing in confrontation atmosphere.” In light of such considerations, Sneider asked the Department for new instructions.

Document 21: U.S. Embassy Paris telegram 33448 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 23 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

A conversation with Xavier de Nazelle disclosed that Paris would not make a “firm decision” on the reprocessing plant until Washington had “finished its efforts to dissuade the ROK from purchasing” it. The French government was “not prepared at this point to have its contractor proceed with the construction of the plant.”

Document 22: State Department telegram 302043 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 24 December 1975, Secret

Source: Digital National Security Archive

Responding to Sneider’s request for new instructions, the Department accepted some of his suggestions and expressed appreciation for the “considerations” about Korean nationalism. Nevertheless, Kissinger wanted him to go ahead and arrange a meeting with Park. When doing so, Sneider should discuss the “positive aspects” of U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation in “non-sensitive areas” should Park cancel the deal with the French, including points raised by Sneider’s message. While Sneider should avoid making specific commitments, he could reiterate his initial response to Yi’s questions while noting that “many of the questions require extended consideration and consultation” once the reprocessing plant had been cancelled.

Document 23: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9928 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 26 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

With Park’s schedule apparently full, Sneider met with presidential aide Kim Chong-Yom. Kim argued that ROK’s decisions on a reprocessing facility were fully justified and did not reflect any nuclear weapons ambitions, but the ROK did have to take into account the broader relationship with Washington and the “serious” U.S. position on reprocessing. Therefore, Kim made a counter-offer: Seoul would postpone any action on reprocessing for six months while the ROK held talks with the United States about nuclear cooperation. As part of this reconsideration, Seoul would be “prepared” to cancel the contract with the French if its nuclear research and development requirements could be met.

In response to Sneider’s emphasis on the importance of cancellation prior to any detailed discussions, Kim argued that the ROK needed a “basis” for cancelling before approaching the French. After their talk, Kim told Sneider that his report on the talks had “impressed” President Park who had authorized telling the French that the ROK “would hold up the reprocessing project” until the talks with Washington had produced a “satisfactory agreement.”

Document 24: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 9961 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 29 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

Based on his discussion with Kim, Sneider believed that Washington should ensure that the dialogue continued. That was consistent with U.S. security and diplomatic interests as well as to preserve access by US “commercial interests” to the ROK nuclear development program. Therefore, he recommended accepting the ROK proposal for discussions of “non-sensitive nuclear cooperation before final cancellation.” By sending a technical team to hold the discussions, Washington would put itself in a strong position: first, by providing a “test of professed ROK willingness to forego acquisition of reprocessing facility,” and second by leaving “unimpaired our leverage both of going anytime directly to President Park to lay issue directly on the line to him” and of “further discouraging” the French from moving forward.

Document 25: State Department telegram 305630 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 31 December 1975, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

The Department was encouraged by Sneider’s report (supra), not least because discussions with Park’s right-hand man meant that Washington was communicating more directly with the president. Agreeing with Sneider that the ROK had decided that it could not go ahead with the reprocessing deal “under present circumstances,” the State Department wanted to ensure that Seoul did not “postpone a definitive reversal of its position on reprocessing.”

Accordingly, Sneider was to tell Kim that the U.S. was ready to hold talks with Seoul on Korea’s nuclear requirements in non-sensitive areas, but that “we cannot proceed with Kori-II or enter into such discussions until the ROKG has decided to cancel its reprocessing plant contract.” Once the ROK made the cancellation decision “we are prepared to send qualified USG personnel to discuss with ROKG the positive aspects of U.S.-Korean peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Prolonged delay in making a decision was likely to have an adverse impact on congressional and public opinion in light of “perceptions that Korea is seeking an independent capability to produce plutonium” that had surfaced in the media.

Document 26: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 0252 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 12 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

The record of Sneider’s discussion with Kim Chong-yom in early January remains classified as do further State Department instructions. Apparently, Kim was affronted enough to induce U.S. officials to drop their position requiring cancellation prior to further talks. Accordingly, initial U.S.-ROK discussion would no longer be dependent on cancellation of the reprocessing contract, although further discussions would. Sneider relayed that to Kim, who said that his government was willing to engage in talks with U.S. “qualified experts”; he did not, however, accept that a “single round” of talks could provide the basis for rejecting the contract with the French. Sneider commented that Kim’s anxiety to get the talks going indicated that “pressures on the ROKG are beginning to take their toll and they are anxious as we are to avoid a protracted period of bargaining.” Moreover, the visit by U.S. experts could “increase the pressures for cancellation while making clear further talks contingent upon cancellation.”

Document 27: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 0292 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing: Canadian Problem,” 13 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

Sneider’s talks with Canadian ambassador Stiles revealed that Korean diplomats had asked Ottawa whether completion of the CANDU reactor sale depended upon cancellation of the reprocessing deal. So far, the Canadians had raised questions about reprocessing but had not made a direct link; to resolve the matter, Stiles sent the question to Ottawa. Sneider also reported that a South Korean Westinghouse representative had said that Minister of Science and Technology Choe, formerly an adamant supporter of reprocessing, was now “two-thirds sure” of the need to cancel the contract.

In a later conversation, Stiles reported that he had spoken with the deputy prime minister: when Stiles mentioned that the French contract had been “postponed,” Nam replied that it “was more than postponement,” it was “cancellation.” It is likely that the State Department had received information from the French about these communications with Seoul, but the relevant telegram traffic has not yet surfaced publicly, although it may be included in documents currently under security review.

4. The Kratzer Mission

Document 28: State Department telegram 008531 to U.S. Embassy Seoul, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 13 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

Agreeing with Sneider that Seoul was wavering on whether to cancel and that an early visit by U.S. experts would provide the “occasion’ for that action, the State Department wanted to send a group to Seoul as quickly as possible under the lead of Acting Assistant Secretary of State Myron Kratzer for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, who had years of experience in international nuclear affairs at the Atomic Energy Commission. The Department instructed the ambassador to propose to Kim meeting dates with the Kratzer group on 22-23 January. “At the same time, you should stress importance to our mutual interests of early cancellation” because without such a decision the United States “could not go beyond this simple exchange.”

Document 29: State Department telegram 0014176 to U.S. Embassy Seoul et al., “ROK Reprocessing,” 20 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

The State Department informed the Embassy that Ottawa had raised the pressure on Seoul by instructing Ambassador Stiles to tell the ROK that it would sign off on the CANDU reactor sale “as soon as you give us assurance that the ROK will not pursue projected acquisition of the reprocessing plant from France.”

Document 30: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 0516 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 22 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

On 22 January, Myron Kratzer’s delegation began meeting with a South Korean group led by Minister of Science and Technology Choe for several days of intensive talks. The discussions between Choe and Kratzer began with tacit disagreement over the question of a decision on reprocessing, with Kratzer emphasizing that future nuclear cooperation depended on a Korean decision to cancel the plant while Choe avoided a “direct link between the outcome of the talks and a reprocessing decision.”

Document 31: Department of State telegram 017725 to CINCPAC transmitting U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 0546 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 23 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD

With Sneider in Hawaii for an ambassador’s conference, urgent messages from the embassy were forwarded to him. This one reported on the progress of the Choe-Kratzer talks, which had produced agreement on a text describing a U.S.-ROK program of nuclear cooperation. According to the embassy, it conveyed a “clear understanding on part of ROK that strengthened cooperation in future is conditional on decision … to cancel French reprocessing facility.” The Embassy also reported on the latest developments concerning the Canadians: Ottawa would not sign the CANDU reactor deal with Seoul unless the latter had cancelled the reprocessing facility.

Document 32: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 0545 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing,” 23 January 1976, Secret

Source: Digital National Security Archive

The Choe-Kratzer discussions produced an agreed summary record which included a general agreement on a future program of cooperation in a number of areas: 1) Improved communication/coordination of peaceful nuclear cooperation, 2) Cooperation in nuclear reactor design, construction, operation maintenance, 3) Sister laboratory relationship, 4) Nuclear fuel fabrication, 5) Reprocessing services, 6) Reactor safety and regulatory cooperation, and 7) General agreement for science and technology cooperation. The heart of the record was the admission that Seoul was reconsidering its plans to purchase the reprocessing facility and that “the final decision will be made on the basis of the ROK/US discussions.”

5. The “Knockout Blow"

Document 33: Memorandum of conversation, “Middle East; ROK Nuclear Reactor,” 24 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973-1977, box 16, Nodis Briefing Notes, 1975-76; also available on Digital National Security Archive

At a NATO meeting in Brussels, Kissinger and MacEachen had further discussion of the reactor and reprocessing deals. MacEachen said that the Canadians had asked for assurances that the reprocessing plant would not be built; otherwise, Canada could not sell the reactors. He explained that “we are working with the ROK to soften them up, but I don’t know if. we can deliver a knockout blow.” Kissinger was confident that Canada’s action was indeed the “knockout blow”; as far as he was concerned, “there will be no reprocessing plant.”

Document 34: U.S. Embassy Seoul telegram 0552 to Department of State, “ROK Nuclear Reprocessing; Canadian Reactor Sale,” 25 January 1976, Secret

Source: RG 59, AAD 1976

Consistent with what MacEachen told Kissinger, that same day the Korean government signed an agreement with Canada assuring that “it is not pursuing acquisition of the reprocessing facility” and “the projected reprocessing facility has been shelved indefinitely … at least until after the [ROK’s] negotiations with the United States on further nuclear co-operation are resolved.” The next day, 26 January 1976, Canada and South Korea held a signing ceremony on the CANDU reactor sale. That same day, on 26 January, the South Koreans told U.S. diplomats that they had cancelled the contract with the French (although the key telegrams conveying the decision remain classified). That decision opened the way for U.S.-Korean discussions of peaceful nuclear cooperation.

Document 35: U.S. Embassy Paris telegram 20831 to Department of State, “Korean Reprocessing,” 16 July 1976, Secret

Source: FOIA release by Department of State

Despite their pledge to the Canadian government, the Park regime made another effort to acquire a reprocessing plant. Working with the South Koreans, a Taiwanese company made an approach to the French firm, St. Gobain, to acquire equipment that could be used to construct a reprocessing plant; the Taiwanese also tried to acquire fuel fabricating technology from another French entity. The French government denied the export licenses to the Taiwanese. As the embassy cable indicates, referring to State Department telegram 157296 (not presently available), Washington already knew that Seoul had been making a surreptitious effort, but the Taiwanese role in the matter had been unknown. Probably because such efforts had been blocked, at the end of 1976 that Park cancelled the 890 project.[3]

*Thanks to Gregory Graves, Robert Wampler, and Daniel Charles Sneider for their suggestions.


[1] .Jungmin Kang, Peter Hayes, Li Bin. Tatsujiro Suzuki, and Richard Tanter, “South Korea’s Nuclear Surprise,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 61 (January/February 2005): 40-49.

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

[3] . Se Young Jang, “The Evolution of US Extended Deterrence and South Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions,” Journal of Strategic Studies 39 (2016): 517.