News | Nov. 1, 2006

Nuclear U-Turns: Learning from the South Korean and Taiwanese Rollback

By Rebecca K.C. Hersman and Robert Peters Nonproliferation Review

South Korea and Taiwan’s decisions to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons represent two of the most important cases of nuclear rollback during the Cold War.1 Despite their dangerous neighborhood and precarious security environment, these two U.S. allies reversed their nuclear programs in the face of tremendous American pressure. These cases highlight the importance of the United States in influencing nuclear rollback decisions, especially among U.S. allies and partners. However, today both countries continue to face grave threats and uncertain futures*raising questions about not only their nuclear past, but also their nuclear future. Why did these countries suspend their nuclear weapons programs? What specific pressures did the United States exert to influence nuclear rollback? How important was Washington in shaping Taiwanese and South Korean decisionmaking? How significant were the reversals, and to what degree did they roll back? Are those reversals permanent? What could induce Taipei and Seoul to restart nuclear weapons programs? Finally, what do these cases teach us about managing other cases of proliferation?

While the nuclear weapons ambitions of both South Korea and Taiwan have lain dormant upwards of two decades, rollback in these two countries is not simply a matter for the history books. Both countries’ commitment to nonproliferation appears strong, but vigilance is in order. Either country could restart its program relatively quickly, and shifts in capability or intent to develop nuclear weapons could escape detection. The history of rollback in these two countries emphasizes the central role of the United States, both in motivating these countries to pursue nuclear weapons as a hedge against a perceived weakening of American commitment to their security, as well as in pressuring them to forego pursuit of these weapons. The United States is likely to remain central to the future nuclear narrative of these states, whether through actively monitoring and tracking any changes in their nuclear aspirations; maintaining strong, stable, and predictable security commitments; or remaining engaged with these allies as they wrestle with the security challenges, most notably North Korea, that dominate the region. READ MORE >>