South, U.S. fail to revise nuclear accord this time

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South, U.S. fail to revise nuclear accord this time

WASHINGTON - The U.S. and South Korea concluded their sixth round of talks on the sensitive issue of the renewal of its bilateral civilian nuclear pact Thursday, without producing a significant agreement.

For the past two years, the two allies have been at a stalemate regarding South Korea’s request to lift the 1974 nuclear cooperation agreement’s ban on enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel.

The negotiations were extended by one day from the initial two days, but the differences have yet to be smoothed over. Sources said that due to the difficulty of coming to a consensus, the nuclear cooperation agreement is likely to be extended for another two years.

“There was likely talk of extending the pact for two years because if we rush to negotiate, we will not be able to sufficiently rewrite the agreement,” said a foreign affairs ministry official.

“So long as the negotiation period remains, we will try our best to mediate in a manner that will benefit us most.”

Washington is afraid that allowing Seoul to enrich uranium and produce its own nuclear fuel may bring it closer to making nuclear weapons, as it goes against its nonproliferation stance, especially in light of military tensions with the North.

South Korea, which derives more than a third of its energy from its nuclear reactors, expects to run out of storage space for spent fuel rods in the next decade.

The talks with Park Ro-byug, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ambassador for energy, heading the South Korean delegation, and the U.S. delegation chief Robert Einhorn, special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, were urgent for Seoul.

The so-called “123 Agreement,” named after pertinent sections in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, is set to expire next March.

Final negotiations will likely have to wrap up in the summer for U.S. lawmakers to approve of a new bilateral nuclear pact, a process which can take months.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to South Korean media reports yesterday that the pact may be extended by two years that it could not confirm the details of the talks until the South Korean delegation returns.

A high-ranking foreign affairs official stated, “Because the final negotiation has not been drawn, we do not yet know which direction it will go.”

But other experts point out that South Korea is in a difficult position because of the United States’ strong nonproliferation stance and also in light of the recent North Korean provocations, which could be further aggravated with a change from the current status quo.

By Sarah Kim, Jung Won-yeob []
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