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SEOUL — South Korea can now develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets far beyond the Korean Peninsula, following the United States’ approval to lift a 42-year-old restriction on its ally’s missile development program.

South Korean and U.S. leaders announced the termination of missile guidelines imposed on Seoul in 1979. At the time, South Korea wanted to acquire American technology to develop its own missiles, and in return, the Asian nation agreed to limit the range of its missiles to 180 kilometers with a maximum payload of 500 kilograms.

The sanctions came when it was discovered that South Korea wanted to develop nukes. So if the U.S. is willing to punish one of its biggest allies, why is the U.S. turning a blind eye on Israel's covert and unofficial nuclear program?

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  • informative article: theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/15/…
    – Aaron F
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 15:25
  • In the case of South Korea, there's an interesting angle of what would happen after a possible reunification (which seems to have popular support in ROK)? A unified Korea would by default become a nuclear power, unless US can offer both DPRK and China something valuable enough to have the DPRK disarm.
    – Pete W
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 20:31
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    The quote does not mention nukes...
    – OrangeDog
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 22:09
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    What nukes?
    – Mark
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 22:40
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    This isn't even remotely close to a sanction, it's simply a negotiated condition on what/how the US is willing to give in military technology transfer. With the precondition that the US is actually thinking about giving them mil tech. As a punishment?
    – obscurans
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 3:03

7 Answers 7

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There are several points that invalidate the comparison of South Korean situation to Israeli one.

First, "ballistic missile" does not equate "nuke" - there are plenty ballistic tactical missiles with conventional payloads, and South Korea has no nuclear weapons (as far as we know). Thus, "sanctions", as you called them, were not a result of Korea starting a nuclear program.

Second, missile restrictions were not "sanctions" - they were a result of bilateral accords between ROK and USA, and they were a condition USA placed on missile-related technology transfers Korea wanted. Israel never asked USA for any tech in their ballisic missile program, save for 1975, when they asked to be given Pershing IIs as a part of military assistance program following their withdrawal from Sinai (USA refused that point, and Israel developed Jericho II missile with similar capabilities); so there is no leverage for USA there.

Thus, drawing parallels between these two situations is not viable - they are too different.

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    It seems the differences between US military aid to ROK and Israel are not that different to warrant the "drawing parallels between these two situations is not viable" comment.
    – Dave
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 12:15
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    @Dave I meant the situations in the question - korean ballistic missile program is quite different to israeli nuclear program, and USA military aid is only involved in one of them. Commented May 30, 2021 at 6:50
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    in fact, the US is a major customer for Israeli technology, especially in missiles and electronics, as it's often way superior to their own.
    – jwenting
    Commented May 30, 2021 at 14:04
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The security relationship between the US and the Republic of Korea involves US troops on Korean soil and an integrated military structure. There used to be US nuclear weapons based in the ROK, but this was less institutionalized than the nuclear sharing within NATO. In return for the "nuclear umbrella," the ROK agreed to limit their own strategic arms projects.

This is unlike the relationship between the US and Israel.

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First, Israel's nuclear capability was first developed in the mid-late 60s, when Israel was in considerable existential risk and while the US was not nearly as closely aligned with Israel as it is now. Its development now would most likely result in much more international pushback.

The missiles are deniable, as Israel has never acknowledged its own nuclear force. They serve just as well a deterrent without it, so there is no need for official recognition.

The given South Korea example is somewhat besides the point as a) didn't concern nukes b) didn't concern punishment and c) did concern conditions for a weapon/technology transfer which are something entirely different.

Israel has a close relationship with the US (some would say unhealthily close). From an US point of view, rather than being "on the hook" to guarantee Israel's survival in extreme conditions - say another, unlikely, Yom Kippur war, or an Iranian nuclear strike - Israel's nuclear force allows it to carry out its own deterrence. As a long as appearances are maintained by deniability and the likelihood of an Israeli use are extremely low, or could appear justified if it did happen, there is a fair bit of upside for the US to a very close ally being able to defend itself without needing to draw in direct US military intervention, especially of a nuclear nature.

The only real downside is when nuclear non-proliferation is pursued against states like North Korea, where there is a risk of appearing to have double standards. However North Korea's behavior is so extreme that it has few friends anyway and Israeli nukes are not a significant factor there. And, again, deniable. Iran? Somewhat isolated diplomatically, not extremely popular in the neighborhood and if anything, they tend to give quite some bit of justification to Israel's forces.

Is this "fair"? Not something this answer is trying to address.

Note that both Pakistan and India openly "went nuclear" with rather limited long term downsides to both.

Last, the ongoing controversy about Israel's actions and unconditional US support has little to do with those nukes and much more with the failure of Israel to reach a fair agreement with the Palestinians (who, as a comment mentions, are not at all the potential targets of these nukes).

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    Worth noting that Israel is hardly likely to use nukes against the Palestinians - it's too close to their own land (or they might argue that it is their own land) and the negative impacts of a nuclear detonation in your own back yard are so severe they would be crazy to even consider it. Iran is a more likely target, or possibly Egypt, but even those are a bit too close by to make much sense. Commented May 28, 2021 at 18:52
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    My take is that they use the capability as a deterrent -- "If we're ever facing destruction, we'll damn well make sure we don't go out alone". It's - ironically enough - a bit like holding a suicide vest with a dead man's switch and an estimated blast radius of several miles. Commented May 29, 2021 at 22:35
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    @DarrelHoffman Israel's nuclear weapons are literally a doomsday weapon, only for taking their enemies with them when destruction is inevitable.
    – jwenting
    Commented May 30, 2021 at 14:06
  • The US also knew a lot about the Pakistani nuclear program, but chose to do next to nothing about it, especially during the Afghan war. Carter did pass some kind of formal resolution, but it was largely ignored during the Reagan years. The latter's CIA director even confronted Zia with the evidence around 1981, but Zia just gave some non-denial denial, and that was pretty much it. Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 10:05
  • There are some declassified CIA assessments showing that by 1985 the US policy was to prevent Zia from carrying a nuclear test, i.e. becoming an overt nuclear-weapons power. In some sense, that kind of policy is still succeeding wrt to Israel. Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 10:12
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  1. If something is covert, how do you determine that it actually exists?

  2. Israel does not pose a threat to the US, unlike some others who have been or are now attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Compare the British & French development post-WWII, or the later Indian and Pakistani programs.

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    For 1, most countries, America included, have intelligence agencies. It's rather hard to hide a nuclear purifying facility so I'm quite certain if they have one, the US would know about it. Commented May 28, 2021 at 16:08
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    @ShmuelNewmark yes, and all those intelligence agencies know that Israel has nukes. Commented May 29, 2021 at 8:15
  • @Shmuel Newmark: See point #2. If something is only known to the intelligence agency, and not (beyond rumour) to the general public, then you don't have to make a big deal about it. Also note that intelligence agencies have been known to be wrong. Their job is to make worst-case assessments on the limited data they can acquire. So assume Israel does have nukes: what's the worst case for the US?
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 17:03
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Isreal is a key US ally in the middle east. Its ability to survive(and win) in a standoff with Arab countries in the region is a part of US power projection strategy here.

Also, comparing to ROK, Israel is far more independent in its politics. So, we have not very usual situation, when US cannot dictate its ally what to do.

Summarizing with huge pro-Israel lobby in the US, here we are.

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    -1. is a part of US power projection strategy here. No, it isn't, though it is often put forward as an argument for unconditional support of Israel. In 1991, rather than being a help, Israel was an active hindrance because the coalition had to expand significant effort to stop Scuds landing on Israel which might have otherwise drawn in Israel into the fight, imploding the Arab components of the coalition. The US military, to the best of my knowledge, has very rarely, if ever launched actions from Israeli territory, unlike from other allies. Commented May 28, 2021 at 18:06
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    Its only base in Israel is definitely out of place by its lack of ambition, for such an important ally. In other words, at a "power projection strategy" level, the US does its best to minimize the visibility of its alliance with Israel whenever it is operating on the basis of strictly US interests. Commented May 28, 2021 at 18:07
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The elephant in the room is that Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, whereas the two Koreas and Iran are. This means that Israel is legally free to develop its capacity on its own (if it has the necessary scientific and financial resources), while the signatories have assumed an obligation not to develop nuclear weapons, in exchange for getting assistance in developing nuclear energy for peaceful means.

From Wikipedia article on Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons:

The NPT is often seen to be based on a central bargain:

the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

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A different angle:

US can pressure South Korea to stop developing nukes.

US cannot pressure Israel to stop developing nukes (without losing too much).

Politically it's often not advised to propose actions that the country cannot really do as it shows the weakness. No confrontation - no proof of weakness.

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