There are interesting parallels between North Korea’s current nuclear weapons program and Taiwan’s nuclear ambitions fifteen years ago. In both cases, a weapons program was discovered, dismantled and secretly restarted. In both cases, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring was inadequate and easily circumvented. In both cases, a major power threatened military action unless the nuclear weapons program was dismantled.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Washington’s handling of Taiwan’s nuclear weapons ambitions in the 1970s and 1980s: No good deed done for China goes unpunished. But perhaps the time has come to prescribe Beijing some of its own medicine.
Consider this. In 1969, Taiwan purchased a Canadian 40-megawatt research reactor and Taiwan’s Institute for Nuclear Energy Research began work on a fuel-reprocessing facility with equipment purchased from France, Germany and the United States. Within three years, Taiwan’s INER had quietly purchased 100 tons of South African uranium–about twice as much as the reactor needed. By the mid 1970s, INER had a full “Plutonium Fuel Chemistry Laboratory functioning complete with sophisticated radiation-hardened plumbing, neutron shielding, and a vacuum reduction furnace designed to refine fissionable plutonium metal, a byproduct of the spent, neutron-bombarded uranium fuel.
What Taiwan was doing was not a well kept secret. In 1974, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that “Taipei conducts its small nuclear program with a weapon option clearly in mind, and it will be in a position to fabricate a device after five years.” Although the IAEA had a full safeguards regime in operation at the INER reactor, and had set up a surveillance system, ten spent fuel rods turned up missing in a 1976 inventory–meaning about a half-kilo of plutonium was unaccounted for–enough to make a bomb if one were clever enough. A year later, another INER inventory showed that the fuel rods had been altered, replacing about thirty percent of the fuel elements with aluminum plugs. When this hit the newspapers, Taiwan’s president Chiang Ching-kuo responded cryptically “we have the ability and the facilities to manufacture nuclear weapons [but] we will never manufacture them.”
When the United States threatened to halt the construction of Taiwan’s three multi-billion dollar nuclear power plants, President Chiang ordered the INER reprocessing facilities shut down and dismantled. But a half-kilogram of plutonium was still missing. Alarmed, China’s Foreign Ministry suggested that China might invade Taiwan if it declared independence, cooperated with the Soviet Union…or acquired nuclear weapons. When President Carter broke relations with Taipei in 1979, Congress feared the termination of the US-Taiwan defense treaty “could lead Taiwan to reconsider its nuclear option,” and this concern factored into the mandate of a strong U.S. defense commitment in the April 1979 “Taiwan Relations Act.”
By the mid-1980s the CIA managed to insert a controlled asset deep inside Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program–a Taiwanese army colonel by the name of Chang Hsien-yi. Colonel Chang had been a CIA asset for nearly twenty years, and when Taiwan’s first atomic weapons program was discovered in the early 1970s, the CIA maneuvered him into the field of nuclear engineering. Eventually, as he rose through the ranks, the Colonel was named deputy director of INER, the unit designated to produce fissile material for a nuclear device that was being designed at its sister laboratory, the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology.
Colonel Chang had long experience as a clandestine agent, and in 1987, within weeks of a secret order to start up the plutonium reprocessing effort, he had alerted his case officer and began providing thousands of pages of weapons program documentation. As one of his last official acts, President Reagan waited until early-January 1988–after Colonel Chang and his family arrived in Thailand on a holiday vacation, and after the CIA exfiltrated them to the United States–before sending an envoy to Taipei with an ultimatum: Stop the weapons program and shut down the reactor or U.S. military support and nuclear power fuel would be cut off.
Taiwan’s top military commander recalls ruefully that the country’s new president, Lee Teng-hui, signed a pledge to halt the program, but an entry in his diary a month later shows the general suspected eager scientists may have continued “unofficial research” despite Lee’s signature. The general’s diary noted “a small number of scientists won’t give up their achievements [which] is natural and not necessarily incompatible with our non-nuclear policy. Really, do we have to kill these scientists before America will be put at ease?” Within a short time, the nuclear weapons project was gone…but not forgotten.
In July of 1995, after the Chinese launched missiles into the Taiwan Strait halting all merchant shipping in one of the world’s busiest sea-lanes for a week, the most the State Department spokesman would say was that China’s missile tests “do not contribute to peace and stability in the region.” This timid reaction from Washington partially prompted Taiwan’s President Lee to formally recommend “we should re-study the question [of nuclear weapons development] from a long-term point of view.” However, Lee later repeated his predecessor’s assurance that Taiwan “has the ability” to build a bomb “but definitely will not.” When a second Chinese missile test closed the Straits again in March of 1996, President Clinton reassured Taiwan of Washington’s commitment and dispatched two carrier battle groups to the region. Taipei breathed easier.
Today, only Taiwan’s senior leaders know exactly where their nuclear weapons program stands. Certainly, INER still maintains all the blueprints and data needed to start up the program, and Taiwan’s six nuclear reactors still churn out irradiated, plutonium-rich fuel rods which sit in cooling pools outside the power plants. U.S. environmental law prevents importing those rods into the United States.
Would that Beijing would be as mature as Washington was in dealing with client states. But while Beijing thinks it would be okay to attack Taiwan if it has nuclear weapons, it’s not okay for the United States to attack–or even put economic pressure on–North Korea.
It is with only a slight protrusion of tongue-in-cheek that I might suggest a modest gedankenspiel, a thought-experiment, that might help Washington get Beijing to put North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions in perspective.
What if Washington were to tell Beijing that we could live with a nuclear North Korea governed by the most loathsome dictator on the planet? At the same time, we might suggest that Asia’s democracies–especially Taiwan–need their own security guarantees. Therefore, the United States should (after proper groundwork is laid and Taiwan actually deploys functioning nuclear weapons) propose that Taiwan would be willing to disarm provided Beijing engaged Taipei in direct face-to-face negotiations that would include diplomatic recognition and a formal non-aggression treaty, and that Washington would stand in as a guarantor of that pact and take responsibility if Taiwan misbehaves.
Of course, Beijing protests that it doesn’t have the kind of influence in Pyongyang that the United States has in Taiwan. But the fact is that at least 83 percent (but perhaps all) of North Korea’s fuel this year came from China as does US$500 million a year in Chinese food aid. And Beijing has upped its aid to North Korea during the past eight months of Pyongyang’s most obstreperous nuclear threats. China’s reluctance to use its hammer-lock on North Korea’s economy and military petrol betrays a certain satisfaction with the status quo. After all, without the North Korean nuclear threat, China has no leverage in Washington. Ergo, China wants to string out that threat as long as possible.
If the arms-control strategists in Washington could think outside-the-box, they could surely turn tables on Beijing. If China wants the United States to trust psychotic Kim Jung Il with a nuke, then we would expect China to trust a peaceful, democratic, but nuclear Taiwan. After all, turn-about is fair play.
John Tkacik is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.