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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Nuclear Debates and Political Competition in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan: Denuclearization or Nuclear Latency in the aftermath of Fukushima

  • Author(s): Lee, Alex Chang
  • Advisor(s): Solingen, Etel
  • et al.

The objective of this research has been primarily analytical, aiming at a better understanding of why Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are experiencing different outcomes in their nuclear decisions in the post-Fukushima era and how these deviating outcomes will influence these states’ non-nuclear weapons policies in the coming years. To date, much of the scholarship on nonproliferation in Northeast Asia has paid inadequate attention to the effect of political segmentation and competition within the nuclear policy arena on nuclear decision-making processes and nuclear policies. As Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan democratized and liberalized, the political segmentation within the nuclear policy arena diversified into multiple domestic coalitions with different agendas. Thus, political competition within the nuclear policy arena became more complicated as multiple domestic coalitions interacted and competed for political influence. This research seeks to answer the following questions: What determines the nuclear orientation of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in the aftermath of Fukushima? And why are these three states experiencing different outcomes in the post-Fukushima era? Finally, what is the likelihood that these states will reverse their non-nuclear weapons policies in the coming years?

This research argues that in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident, the segmentation and rearrangement of political competition within the nuclear policy arenas of these states are the main factors in determining these states’ nuclear orientations. Nuclear orientation is operationalized via the political behavior of domestic nuclear coalitions which include coalitions that are pro-nuclear energy, pro-nuclear weapons, anti-nuclear energy, and anti-nuclear weapons. Thus, this research contends that in the post-Fukushima era, the final nuclear decision-making of these states is determined by the interplay of these four domestic coalitions within the nuclear policy arena and the ways in which the international and domestic conditions of economy, safety, security, and social norms are filtered through the lenses of these four coalitions. The controlled comparison of these three states in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident provides important benefits for improving our systematic understanding of the relationship between the interplay of coalitions and the nuclear orientation of states.

In the post-Fukushima era, changing international and domestic conditions filtered through the lenses of domestic coalitions affected their nuclear weapons debates differently and resulted in various decision outcomes. These states have been very adamant about their non-nuclear weapons policies while heavily condemning North Korea. As North Korea continued to conduct its nuclear tests, a domino effect or “reactive proliferation,” as many experts predicted, did not occur in Northeast Asia. However, there are still some possibilities that reactive proliferation could occur in Northeast Asia and spill over to other regions if any one of these states decides to go nuclear in the future.

Taiwan is moving toward complete denuclearization by removing its civilian nuclear programs. South Korea is gradually moving toward complete denuclearization via a gradual phase out of its nuclear power and finding different paths to complete its nuclear fuel cycle. However, Japan’s nuclear orientation is circling back to the original position that it had prior to the Fukushima incident. According to the findings of the case study chapters, this dissertation cautiously envisions that, for different domestic political reasons, Japan and South Korea are more prone to go nuclear than Taiwan if the U.S. nuclear umbrella fails to work properly in the coming years. Japan has an ambition to become the power house of Asia once more. Thus, nuclear weapons might not be an end goal but a necessary step on its way to becoming a great power. This study contends that Japan is more prone to go nuclear due to its political motivations and the consistency shown by its leadership on the matter of nuclear hedging throughout the years. Unlike South Korea and Taiwan, the Japanese leadership continuously used external threats, such as China and North Korea, to rouse nationalistic sentiment within the general population and to justify its remilitarization process. In particular, the surge of nationalism in Japan should be carefully monitored because this will not influence its short-term, but will influence its long-term national strategy. In contrast, this study contends that South Korea is prone to go nuclear due to high public support for nuclear weapons. Even though public support for nuclear weapons is showing a pattern of downward trend since 1999, the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons is still popular among many South Koreans. The recent polls from 2017 to 2018 vary from 43% to 67%. Thus, even though there are no immediate concerns for these states to abandon their non-nuclear weapons policies, the international community needs to keep close eyes on the public support for the nuclear weapons in South Korea and the surge of nationalism and the remilitarization process that is currently in progress in Japan.

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