A litmus test for our alliance

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A litmus test for our alliance

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed a willingness to settle the ongoing disagreement between Seoul and Washington on a need to revise the 40-year-old agreement on South Korea’s use of nuclear power for a commercial purpose. After talks with his Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se at the state department Wednesday, Kerry said that the two foreign ministers discussed the matter during their first meeting in Washington and that he will visit Seoul for further discussion on the issue. Kerry added that he is very hopeful that the issue will be solved before President Park Geun-hye’s visit to Washington in May for a summit with her U.S. counterpart Barack Obama.

However, it remains unclear whether the issue of revising the sensitive nuclear cooperation pact that expires in March would be smoothly resolved before Park’s visit to Washington or whether both foreign ministers have found a clue to the dilemma during their talks. Yet it appears that Washington is also keenly aware of the urgency of the issue.

South Korea, which runs 23 nuclear reactors across the country, is the world’s fifth-largest commercial nuclear power. Spent fuel from the reactors totals as much as 700 tons a year, but they are piled up in temporary storage because the country is banned from reprocessing the waste under the 1974 bilateral nuclear agreement with the U.S. That’s a huge loss for South Korea.

Moreover, Korea is expected to run out of storage space by 2016. It spends more than 500 billion won ($444.8 million) a year on imports to generate nuclear power as it is banned from enriching uranium. Seoul has been demanding Washington revise the bilateral pact so that it can reprocess nuclear waste and enrich uranium for economic and environmental reasons.

The two countries have been discussing the matter since 2010. Washington opposes Seoul’s spent fuel reprocessing and uranium enrichment as they can be used for a military purpose. The U.S. position is understandable amid growing demand in Korea for nuclear sovereignty for deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threat, particularly after Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test.

But South Korea is fully committed to nonproliferation. A traditional bilateral alliance could be undermined if its oldest and closest ally questions South Korea’s intentions. It is also unfair because Washington has long allowed Tokyo’s peaceful reprocessing of its spent fuel. Washington must accept Seoul’s request to ensure and enhance bilateral ties and mutual confidence. We can’t afford to spend more time on the issue.
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