Washington, Korea look to conclude nuclear pact

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Washington, Korea look to conclude nuclear pact

Korea and the United States are looking to conclude a bilateral nuclear cooperation accord as early as next month after four years of negotiations, according to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The revision of the current civilian nuclear cooperation agreement is not expected to include “gold standard” clauses, according to government officials here, which explicitly prohibit uranium enrichment and reprocessing spent fuel. This has been a key point of contention between the two countries in the negotiation process.

Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held bilateral talks for the first time this year on Saturday along the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, where the nuclear accord’s finalization was discussed.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Sunday that Kerry and Yun “agreed to hold a final negotiation on the revision of the Korea-U.S. nuclear accord within the next several weeks and agreed to try our utmost to reach a conclusion.”

The bilateral nuclear energy pact, last amended in 1974, prohibits Korea from enriching uranium because the process can produce plutonium, which can not only power nuclear reactors but can also be used to make atomic weapons. It also bans the country from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods from nuclear reactors.

The pact is sometimes referred to as the 123 Agreement, after pertinent sections in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and was initially set to expire in March 2014 before a two-year extension was negotiated. It is now set to expire in March 2016.

Over four years of negotiations, Seoul has been seeking to lift the ban on enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in its civilian nuclear pact with Washington, claiming the terms of the agreement are no longer applicable 40 years on.

Washington, however, has been reluctant to allow reprocessing and enrichment because it fears it could send the wrong signal in regard to global nonproliferation.

The United States has held onto the gold standard for its nuclear cooperation agreements, legally binding its partners to forswear enrichment and reprocessing, exemplified in is bilateral nuclear energy pact with the United Arab Emirates which took effect in December 2009.

However, the successor to the 123 agreement, looking to soon be concluded, is expected to enable Korea to reprocess spent nuclear fuel for research and development purposes - albeit in a limited way - that would still uphold its nonproliferation principles, according to Seoul sources.

“The U.S. is trying to come up with an agreement that will use a creative method unlike its agreements with any other country,” a Korean foreign affairs official said on uranium enrichment and reprocessing. “The clause on enrichment will not involve a dichotomous method or a simply unilaterally prohibition.”

This signifies that the new pact will not include the gold standard, and is also expected to introduce new terminology.

With the technology, Korea seeks to alleviate its spent fuel storage problem, supply enriched uranium to fuel its nuclear reactors and further contribute to research and development and promote its nuclear industry abroad.

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.

On Saturday, a U.S. State Department official told reporters that concluding negotiations “in the near term” is ideal.

After the provisional signing of the agreement, official signing typically takes another one to two months. Washington will need congressional approval, a process that can take at least 90 days and could be met with opposition.

BY SARAH KIM, YOO JEE-HYE [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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