By Jung Sung-ki
South Korea, like Japan, has the technology to build a nuclear arsenal quickly if it decides to do so, a U.S. defense report said Thursday.
"Several friends or allies of the United States, such as Japan and South Korea, are highly advanced technological states and could quickly build nuclear devices if they chose to do so," said the Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2010, released on Feb. 18, by the U.S. Joint Forces Command.
The biennial report forecasts possible threats and opportunities for the U.S. military.
The 2008 report categorized South Korea, Taiwan and Japan as three "threshold nuclear states" that have the capability to develop nuclear weapons rapidly, should their political leaders decide to do so.
The latest assessment of South Korea's nuclear capability comes as Seoul and Washington are negotiating an extension of a 1974 agreement that bans South Korea from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel without consent from the United States.
The agreement expires in 2014. South Korea wants to regain the rights to reprocess spent fuel rods by its own will. The country, which won a $20 billion contract in December to build four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates, has long complained that the restrictions on the reprocessing work has blocked its aspirations.
South Korea is recognized globally as a pioneer in the study of the "pyprocessing" method aimed at reprocessing spent fuel without extracting weapons-grade plutonium from it.
The U.S. government fears South Korea's reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel might undermine global nonproliferation efforts, and provoke the North, and then Japan, making the security situation in Northeast Asia more volatile.
The JOE said North Korea is "pursuing nuclear weapons technology and the means to deliver them as well."
The 2008 edition had categorized North Korea as a nuclear power, saying, "The rim of the great Asian continent is already home to five nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Russia."
Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test in May last year, after one in 2006, inviting stronger U.N. sanctions. North Korea has boycotted the six-party talks on ending its nuclear weapons programs to protest the imposed international sanctions.