Korea-U.S. nuclear pact extended for two years

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Korea-U.S. nuclear pact extended for two years

Unable to bridge differences on terms to renew their fast-expiring bilateral civilian nuclear agreement, Seoul and Washington decided to extend the pact for another two years while continuing frequent negotiations, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday.

Following the seventh round of bilateral talks in June, negotiations will continue once every three months until the extension period ends on March 19, 2016, or until a consensus is reached, according to the ministry.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said yesterday that the two-year extension was to sort out “technical issues and details” regarding rewriting the agreement and that “the extension period is not yielding [in terms of negotiations] but rather to prevent a gap in having a [Korea-U.S.] nuclear agreement.”

The sixth round of talks to renew the civil nuclear cooperation pact, which expires next March, resumed last week after two years of no action on Seoul’s request for Washington to lift restrictions which bar it from reprocessing nuclear fuel and enriching uranium for civilian use.

The Foreign Ministry said that “through the bilateral talks meaningful progress was made” in the areas of developing pyroprocessing technology and managing spent nuclear fuel, procurement of a stable supply of nuclear fuel and improving Korea’s competitiveness in exports of a nuclear reactor.

Discussion between the Korean delegation headed by Park Ro-byug, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ambassador for energy, and the U.S. delegation chief Robert Einhorn, special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, happened over three days in Washington from April 16, but Seoul again failed to get a green light for its proposal to lift prior bans.

The nuclear energy pact, also called the “123 Agreement” after pertinent sections in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, was last amended in 1974 but Korean experts state that some terms are no longer applicable 40 years later.

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

But Washington agreeing to Seoul’s terms would mean going against its “golden standard” nonproliferation stance. While Korea claims it will use nuclear technology for civilian means, the reprocessing nuclear fuel may produce plutonium which can power nuclear reactors, but also can purportedly be used to make atomic weapons, as with enriched uranium.

In light of nuclear tension with North Korea and Iran, the U.S. fears that changes to the status quo could quickly spiral into a nuclear arms race in the region.

The U.S. showed openness on cooperating with Korea on ways in order to tackle the issue of what to do with spent fuel and through holding a joint fuel cycle study.

Korea proposed developing pyroprocessing technology, which enables the reuse of waste, but doesn’t produce pure uranium or plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons. But the U.S. is concerned that the plutonium produced through pyroprocessing may be turned into weapons-grade material more easily than stored spent fuel.

“The new administration through both President Park Geun-hye and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se actively communicated to the U.S. its message [regarding the nuclear pact], so there has been more meaningful progress than before,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official privy to the issue. “As the 90-minute soccer match ends and we enter overtime, accelerated negotiation is needed for an early settlement between both sides to happen.”

While Park is slated to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on May 7 in Washington, officials here said that because this will be their first bilateral talks, they may not delve too far into the issue of renewing the bilateral nuclear pact, especially after extending it for another two years.

By Sarah Kim, Jung Won-yeob [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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