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Nuclear Brief September 28, 2005

The Withdrawal of U.S. Nuclear Weapons From South Korea

The Presidential Nuclear Initiative, announced on September 27, 1991, led to a withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from South Korea.
The United States withdrew the last nuclear weapons from South Korea in December 1991. The initiative was a result of President George H. Bush's unilateral disarmament initiative in September 1991, which withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from all overseas locations, except air bombs from half a dozen NATO countries in Europe.

Although the South Korean government at the time confirmed the withdrawal, U.S. affirmations were not as clear. As a result, rumors persisted for a long time -- particularly in North and South Korea -- that nuclear weapons remained in South Korea. Yet the withdrawal was confirmed by Pacific Command in 1998 in a declassified portion of the CINCPAC Command History for 1991.

In response to President Bush's initiative, CINCPAC was "specifically tasked to develop a plan for the removal of AFAPs [Artillery Fired Atomic Projectiles], TOMAHAWK Land Attack Missiles, Nuclear (TLAM/N), nuclear strike bombs, and nuclear depth bombs (NDBs) at the earliest opportunity."

President Bush approved the Nuclear Weapons Deployment Authorization (NWDA) for FY 1991 and FY 1992 on November 5, 1991, as National Security Directive 64 (NSD-64). According to the CINCPAC history, "this action cleared the way for the actual return of all land-based Naval air delivered and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons to U.S. territory, the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from Korea, and other withdrawals in Europe." Moreover, according to the CINCPAC history:

"CJCS advised USCINCPAC that the withdrawal of weapons from Korea had highest priority for transportation assets, with weapon movements to commence before the next meeting of the ROK-U.S. Military Committee and Security Committee (MCM/SCM) scheduled for 20-22 November 1991."

The last nuclear weapon was withdrawn from South Korea in December 1991. Nuclear artillery shells, or Artillery Fired Atomic Projectiles, like this W79, had first priority. The last W79 warhead was dismantled at the Pantex Plan in 2003.

Of the weapons removed from South Korea, the nuclear artillery shells had "first priority for transportation," according to CINCPAC. As such, the B61 bombs remained in the country a little longer until the artillery shells were gone. The withdrawal involved approximately 60 artillery shells and 40 B61 bombs.

Reactions and Intentions

The South Korean government Seoul was apparently surprised by President Bush's initiative, which was primarily a gesture toward the Soviet Union, and an official reaction was slow in coming. Two weeks after President Bush's announcement, rumors began circulating in the South Korean media that Seoul was considering declaring itself nuclear-free when the U.S. withdrawal had been completed. "It is known that the government is considering declaring non-existence of nuclear weapons in South Korea jointly with the U.S. government," the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo quoted an unidentified government source saying.

Second-thoughts about the need to withdraw all U.S. nuclear weapons from Korea also emerged. As the nuclear artillery projectiles began leaving Kunsan Air Base south of Seoul, the Washington Post reported on 12 October that the U.S. had decided to leave the B61 bombs behind for the time being. Yet leaving some nuclear weapons in South Korea while at the same time insisting that North Korea could not develop nuclear weapons made little sense, and the following week U.S. government officials told the New York Times that the aircraft bombs would also be withdrawn. The decision was made, the officials explained, in part to persuade North Korea to permit international inspection of its nuclear facilities, and in part because the U.S. military no longer thought the nuclear bombs were necessary to defend South Korea.

North Korea's first response to the withdrawal plans was that it would still feel threatened by U.S. long-range nuclear weapons that could reach North Korea from elsewhere.  On 1 November Reuters reported an article had appeared in the official North Korean daily Rodong Sinmun ridiculing the U.S. for talking about removing nuclear weapons from South Korea while maintaining its nuclear umbrella over the area. "It is only too natural that we mentioned this U.S. 'nuclear umbrella' for South Korea," the article said, adding that "they would continue to threaten us with nuclear weapons in the future. Under such conditions," the paper said, "the U.S. nuclear threat to us would not be dispelled, even though nuclear weapons are taken out of South Korea."

While accepting the withdrawal, Seoul insisted that the country remain under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. So North Korea initially maintained the position that inspections of its nuclear facilities would not be allowed as long as South Korea remained under the U.S. nuclear umbrella of sea and air-launched nuclear weapons. But in a major policy shift on November 26, Pyongyang announced it would allow inspection of its secret nuclear installations if Washington allowed inspections of its bases to guarantee that all U.S. nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea. While officially welcoming President Bush's September 27 initiative, North Korea stated that it would "sign the nuclear safeguards accord, when the United States begins to withdraw its nuclear weapons from South Korea."

On December 18, 1991, South Korea's President Roh Tae-Woo declared: "As I speak, there do not exist any nuclear weapon whatsoever anywhere in the Republic of Korea."

Two days later, on November 28, the South Korean Yonhap news agency reported that South Korea and the U.S. had agreed to complete the withdrawal by the end of the year and to declare the South free of nuclear weapons during President Bush's scheduled visit to Seoul in early January 1992. "North Korea's announcement [to allow inspections if U.S. nuclear weapons were removed from the South] prompted the two allies to advance the schedule to removing nuclear arms deployed with the U.S. forces in Korea," a South Korean government source told the agency.

Although one South Korean official told the press that "our government can confirm the withdrawal," U.S. military officials continued not to comment on the report, saying: "We neither confirm nor deny the existence of nuclear weapons here at any time." Yet news about denuclearizing South Korea were difficult to keep secret, and the New York Times reported from Seoul on December 11 that it had virtually been an "open secret that American military forces here have been racing to dismantle what for three decades constituted the last line of defense against the North: An arsenal of more than 150 atomic weapons."

By mid-December, South Korean government officials privately told reporters that the U.S. had completed its planned withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea. Finally, on December 18, 1991, South Korean President Roh Tae-Woo publicly declared that there were no U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea: "As I speak, there do not exist any nuclear weapon whatsoever anywhere in the Republic of Korea," he said. When asked about Roh's declaration, U.S. President George H. Bush said that he "heard what Roh said and [I'm] not about to argue with him."

See also the other Korea sections:

A history of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea
U.S. nuclear strike planning against North Korea

Copyright | Hans M. Kristensen | www.nukestrat.com | 2004-2005

download documents:

Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), Command History for 1991, October 30, 1992, Volume 1 (excerpts only: pp. 90-93).
Partially declassified and released under FOIA to Peter Hayes.

U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), "History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons: July 1945 through September 1977," February 1978. (Excerpts only)
Obtained under FOIA by Robert S. Norris, NRDC.

background information

Robert S. Norris, et al., "Where They Were," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 1999.

Ibid., Appendix B: Deployments by Country, 1951-1977.

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  Hans M. Kristensen