U.S. wants to rush nuclear deal

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U.S. wants to rush nuclear deal

Seoul and Washington are expected to have arduous negotiations to rewrite the decades-old civil nuclear agreement, as Korean officials made clear they have no intention to rush to conclude the deal to meet a U.S. time frame.

During the talks between South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on Tuesday, the issue of rewriting the bilateral nuclear pact, set to expire in March next year, was one of the key topics.

While the two top foreign affairs officials spoke in unison about growing security threats from North Korea, their positions slightly differ on the sensitive issue of renegotiating the bilateral civil nuclear agreement.

The 1974 pact bars South Korea from reprocessing nuclear fuel and Seoul is increasingly pushing Washington to lift the contentious restrictions as the country is dependent on nuclear energy and is running out of storage space for spent fuel.

Washington, however, is reluctant because nuclear reprocessing can be used to build atomic bombs. It also worries that allowing Korea to produce its own nuclear fuel would trigger a wider nuclear-arms race in Northeast Asia and the Middle East.

At the press conference following their meeting, Kerry said he wanted to get the renegotiation done within weeks.

“The foreign minister and I had a very good discussion about that agreement,” Kerry said.

“We’ve exchanged some ideas, and I will follow up on those when I visit Seoul in about a week. I am very hopeful, and I think the foreign minister shares this hope, that this can be resolved before the visit of President Park [Geun-hye].”

Park is scheduled to visit the United States in early May to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the same press conference, Yun stressed the content of the deal, not the timing.

“I emphasized to Secretary Kerry the importance of revising the Korea-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreement in a mutually beneficial, timely, and forward-looking manner,” Yun said. “Both sides will continue consultations in this regard.”

Seoul officials responded with caution about Kerry’s remarks.

“We want to make clear that no deadline was set to conclude the deal,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official. “We understand Secretary Kerry’s remarks as the fundamental position of Washington to conclude it as quickly as possible.”

“It is our position that it should be renegotiated properly and timely,” he said. “During this month, the two countries will begin talks to renegotiate the pact.”

Due to the reprocessing restrictions, the South has annually spent about 600 billion won ($534 million) on outsourcing enrichment of the United States- or French-supplied uranium fuel.

Seoul and Washington began talks to rewrite the agreement in 2010 and five negotiations took place since then, but no progress was seen.

In the past discussions, Korea demanded that the United States lift the reprocessing restrictions and that it allow the development of pyroprocessing technology, which enables the reuse of waste but doesn’t produce weapons-grade nuclear materials.

Some scientists, however, said the indigenous technology of Korea can still produce materials that can be used to build atomic bombs.

Seoul will soon create a team by assembling experts from the Foreign Ministry, the new Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning and other concerned ministries and begin talks with Washington this month.

The Park administration has expressed its strong desire to renegotiate the deal to gain more leverage toward Korea’s peaceful use of nuclear power.

During her meeting last month with visiting U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Park related her stance on the issues.

At the time, Park asked for the U.S. Congress’ support in revising the agreement in a “more forward-looking manner to expand Korea’s peaceful use of atomic energy.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Corker was struck by the sentiments in Korea. “They are pushing hard for this reprocessing ability,” Corker was quoted as saying. “There is a lot of national pride in this.”

The U.S. lawmaker also told the newspaper that Park and other South Korean officials assured that the country has no intention to pursue a nuclear weapons program, but he was also struck by arguments by some Korean politicians that Korea should reconsider the position.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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