Korea scrutinizes U.S. nuclear deal with Vietnam

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Korea scrutinizes U.S. nuclear deal with Vietnam

President Barack Obama this week approved an agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation between the governments of the United States and Vietnam that is raising eyebrows in Korea because of uncertainty surrounding whether it will allow Vietnam to engage in sensitive fuel-production technologies.

The Korean government is keeping a close eye on whether the new nuclear pact includes the “gold standard” of nonproliferation, which is a prohibition of uranium enrichment or plutonium processing.

The U.S.-Vietnam nuclear deal has not yet been made public.

Seoul has been seeking to lift the ban on enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in its civilian nuclear pact with Washington written in 1974, but it hasn’t made much progress in three years of negotiations.

Obama’s memorandum to the secretaries of state and energy on Monday agreeing to cooperation between Vietnam and the United States on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, said that he “determined that the performance of the agreement will promote, and will not constitute an unreasonable risk to, the common defense and security.”

A civilian bilateral nuclear agreement was signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on the sidelines of the Asean Summit in Brunei in October to allow the transfer of nuclear-energy-related materials and components between the two countries.

Under the deal drawn up in October, Vietnam reportedly pledged not to enrich its own uranium but to purchase nuclear fuel for its reactors on the international market.

The agreement was not made public, but U.S. officials were quoted afterward saying the deal with Vietnam doesn’t legally prohibit the country from developing its own domestic capabilities either by enriching uranium or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

U.S. lawmakers including Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, raised concerns that the agreement may be in direct conflict with the gold standard previously established in a similar arrangement with the United Arab Emirates.

In the agreement with the UAE in 2009, uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies were explicitly prohibited as a means of preventing civilian nuclear capabilities from being diverted to a weapons program.

Corker addressed a letter to Kerry that stated, “The absence of a consistent policy .?.?. sends a mixed message to those nations we seek to prevent from gaining or enhancing such capability, and signals to our partners that the gold standard is no standard at all.”

Kerry noted at the signing that Vietnam has the second-largest market after China for nuclear power in East Asia.

Furthermore, Vietnam’s $10 billion market for nuclear power is expected to grow fivefold into a $50 billion market by 2030.

Vietnam, a former foe of the United States, has also signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia, France, China, Korea, Japan and Canada.

But Washington has remained adamant in denying Seoul the ability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

Last April, the two countries agreed to extend the current agreement by two years until March 2016, and Korea and the United States are scheduled to meet again for a 10th round of talks on renewing a bilateral nuclear energy pact in April.

“In a situation where the U.S. is concerned that Korea and China relations are getting closer while Korea and Japan relations are creaky, our government has to use this double standard to our advantage in our negotiations,” said Kim Hyun-wook, an international affairs professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

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

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

BY SARAH KIM, PARK SEUNG-HEE [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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