Under what conditions would the democracies in Northeast Asia seek to join the nuclear weapons club? In this Adelphi, Mark Fitzpatrick analyses the past nuclear pursuits and current proliferation drivers of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

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Under what conditions would the democracies in Northeast Asia seek to join the nuclear weapons club? Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are threshold nuclear powers by virtue of their robust civilian nuclear-energy programmes. All three once pursued nuclear weapons and all face nuclear-armed adversaries. Fitzpatrick’s latest book analyses these past nuclear pursuits and current proliferation drivers. It considers how long it would take each to build a nuclear weapon if such a fateful decision were made but does not predict such a scenario. Unlike when each previously went down a nuclear path, democracy and a free press now prevail as barriers to building bombs in the basement. Reliance on US defence commitments is a better security alternative – as long as such guarantees remain credible. But extended deterrence is not a barrier to proliferation of sensitive nuclear technologies. Nuclear hedging by its Northeast Asian partners will challenge Washington’s nuclear diplomacy.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Executive Director, IISS–Americas, and director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme.

'Mark Fitzpatrick is a highly experienced hand in both Asia-Pacific affairs and global nuclear non-proliferation. His balanced and insightful analysis of the interplay between US extended deterrence and nuclear non-proliferation in Northeast Asia, based on extensive research and interviews, makes for a compelling and persuasive read.'
Ambassador Nobuyasu Abe, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs and current Commissioner on the Japan Atomic Energy Commission

'Mark is a prominent pundit in shaping global non-proliferation and strategic discourse. His book provides fascinating insights into the real world of nuclear policy options that the three democracies of Northeast Asia face today. And he explains how geopolitics, nuclear hedging and US extended nuclear deterrence likely will play out in relation to one another in the future. Such wisdom can emerge only from a man of Mark’s distinguished career both as practitioner at the State Department and as an eminent strategic thinker in academia. This book is a ‘must read’ for those interested in the unfolding geo-strategic landscape in Northeast Asia.'
Ambassador Chun Yungwoo, former National Security Advisor to Republic of Korea president Lee Myong-bak and current Chairman of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum

'Mark Fitzpatrick has been immersed in East Asian security matters since we were together at the US Embassy in Tokyo in the early 1990s. Since then, he has become a leading global expert on nuclear non-proliferation. His incisive book combines these fields, arguing persuasively why staying non-nuclear and tied to US security remains the best course for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.'
Walter F. Mondale, former US Vice-President and Ambassador to Japan

'This excellent book explains the balance between nuclear intentions and strategic thinking in the region. Fitzpatrick offers a penetrating analysis of the nuclear histories, security threat perceptions, and strategic responses of the three cases and their close links to America’s regional security posture. His contribution is by far the most comprehensive, enlightening and contemplative among studies of security policy and nuclear issues in Northeast Asia.'
Fu-Kuo Liu, Research Fellow, Institute of International Relations, and Executive Director, Center for Security Studies, National Chengchi University

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  • Introduction

    The three Northeast Asian democracies that are the focus of this book are not suspected of nuclear proliferation. Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) and Taiwan (the Republic of China) have accepted all relevant global non-proliferation instruments and are in good standing with their obligations. They promote non-proliferation abroad, and their open, free societies would not sustain secret nuclear programmes at home. Yet each of the three...
  • Chapter 1: Republic of Korea

    If a new nuclear-armed state were to emerge in Northeast Asia, it would most likely be the Republic of Korea (ROK). This observation is not meant to predict that South Korea will choose nuclear armament. Steadfast in its adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the government in Seoul firmly rejects the pro-nuclear arguments posed by a few politicians and commentators. Officials understand well the downsides that those advocates ignore: the...
  • Chapter 2: Japan

    For much of the past half-century, Japan has been considered to be a likely candidate for nuclear proliferation. It has both the means and the motive to do so. The nation’s highly developed industrial base features advanced nuclear technologies, including those for both uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. It has had contentious relations with nuclear-armed neighbours, first the Soviet Union, then China and now also North Korea. Yet for 50...
  • Chapter 3: Taiwan

    Like Japan and South Korea, Taiwan is often considered to be a latent nuclear power, possessing the technological basis for developing nuclear weapons. Like South Korea, Taiwan twice went down the weapons path in a post-war period of authoritarian rule and deep security anxieties. Today, the authoritarianism is gone but the reasons for anxiety remain. Taiwan faces a potential existential threat unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and its weakness...
  • Conclusions

    Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and Taiwan are likely to remain latent nuclear powers for the foreseeable future. Their civilian nuclear programmes and development of several dual-use technologies would enable them to produce nuclear weapons in perhaps two years – or less in Japan’s case – in the unlikely event that they were to abandon their firm adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Sophisticated missile programmes...

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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