by Duyeon Kim
Published in The Hill‘s Congress blog on November 16, 2012.
By Duyeon Kim, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation – 11/16/12 12:00 PM ET
North Korea and nuclear weapons are ever-present in the minds of South Koreans except when it comes to its own nuclear energy.
This may seem counterintuitive.
But there’s a distinct culture in South Korea in which its people and nuclear engineers don’t think of weapons (or aren’t allowed to) as Americans often do; rather “nuclear” is viewed as a source of energy to fuel its growing economy.
Washington and Seoul are negotiating the renewal of the 1974 civil nuclear cooperation agreement (Korean 123) expiring in March 2014. Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act requires U.S.-origin nuclear material and technology meet stringent nonproliferation criteria when transferred to a recipient country for nuclear energy uses.
With new U.S. appointments and confirmation hearings post-election, Seoul may not have a negotiating counterpart until next summer, and given the Congressional calendar, an agreement would realistically need to be submitted to Congress by June 2013.
The clock is ticking and the allies are stuck on a contentious issue: uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing (ENR). This technology can be used to make both fuel for civilian nuclear power reactors and, if unchecked, nuclear weapons.
As a major nuclear exporter, Seoul desires the right to acquire full nuclear fuel cycle capacity, which includes enrichment and reprocessing.
The Korean nuclear industry believes enrichment capabilities would allow Seoul to provide nuclear fuel along with its reactors, making it more competitive in the global nuclear energy market. They also believe pyroprocessing, viewed here as reprocessing, would solve Korea’s storage problems for used nuclear fuel.
These desires have sparked alarm bells among nonproliferation advocates who want to limit the number of countries with enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.
One concern is whether Seoul would be tempted to build the bomb for greater security against nuclear-armed Pyongyang. Another concern is whether this could be a repeat of the poor deal negotiated by President George W. Bush with India outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty? The Obama Administration has already been knee deep in a fierce debate about the “gold standard,” established in a deal in which the United Arab Emirates forewent enrichment and reprocessing, and how to proceed with other 123 negotiations.
The North Korean nuclear problem shouldn’t be an argument to justify suspicions of South Korea’s quest for enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. And the 1991 South-North Joint Declaration to never enrich, reprocess, or station nuclear weapons is a non-starter to dissuade Seoul in 123 negotiations.
Before jumping to assumptions on Seoul’s nuclear ambitions, intentions and context should be considered.
South Korean development of a nuclear weapon would trigger an instant economic collapse. From the ashes of the Korean War, it has grown into the world’s 12th largest economy. It would bring crippling U.S. and international sanction destroying sixty years of hard work. Despite demands by some Korean conservatives for nuclear armament, Seoul policymakers and opinion leaders seem well aware of reality.
To demonstrate its commitment to nonproliferation, Seoul has signed a host of international frameworks that would make cheating impossible. It accepted the IAEA Additional Protocol, and its proven record of transparency is recognized by the IAEA Integrated Safeguards country list.
One can also no longer argue that Seoul is bound by the 1991 declaration because it’s clear who broke this agreement. While the declaration was defunct before the ink dried, Seoul has nevertheless committed itself to strict global nonproliferation measures.
The real dilemma for the administration is politics versus policy versus U.S. commercial interests.
The real concerns are: What are Seoul’s true intentions and do they make sense? Is it in Washington’s economic, political, and security interest to have a close ally with full fuel cycle capabilities? What’s in it for America’s nuclear industry and can Seoul be an attractive business partner? Does an ENR-able Korea weaken the nonproliferation regime or can the allies become the new global standard-setter and provider of international public goods as nuclear power expands in Asia?
And would Washington’s insistence on a no ENR pledge disadvantage U.S. interests in light of potential game changers China or India that could decide to enter as a new competitor in the global nuclear industry without requiring the same stringent nonproliferation conditions?
These are the questions we ought to be asking.