U.S. must rethink nuclear pact

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U.S. must rethink nuclear pact


With enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) virtually banned, a new South Korea-United States nuclear cooperation agreement, which was first made in 1974 and expires in 2016, is on the verge of being hammered out. The new pact could be a watershed moment because the decades-long agreement, a backbone of the civil nuclear cooperation that defines the regulations on nuclear technology and policy, is often an impetus for new scientific research programs.

Roughly speaking, the talks are moving in the right direction. As a result of tough negotiations at home and abroad, the Obama administration’s adamant endeavors to curb nuclear proliferation appear to be effectively working at least in the last-ditch negotiations with South Korea over the revision of the current nuclear pact.

The new nuclear accord, it seems, shows no changes of substance, especially on the core issue of the ENR but offers moderate benefits to Seoul and Washington: It limits South Korea’s independent right for research and development relating to the ENR, while expanding South Korea’s room to export nuclear plants overseas. Critics of the negotiations, in contrast to their counterparts at the government, point out that the South Korea would adopt the nonproliferation policies and institutions recommended by the United States whether it likes or not, because that is how the world works - the strong calling the shots and the weak following orders.

In particular, given that the full amendment of the outdated agreement was at the top of the list of South Korean Madame President Park Geun-hye’s priorities, there is no question that the Seoul government now views the new pact as essentially its second-best outcome. The conservative Park government has assumed rightly that there is no choice but to follow the global nonproliferation norm, standing together in support of Obama’s nuclear-free world mantra.

Some analysts point to the ten-year joint R&D over the much-debated pyroprocessing as proof of the United States’ close cooperation with South Korea. Other specialists, however, argue that South Korea has overreacted to American diplomatic pressure based upon the mistaken assumption that what South Korea really wants more than anything else is a nuclear weapon, as sometimes cited by the U.S. intelligence community’s judgment that South Korea is still keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons. But there is not any rational basis for assuming that this accurately represents the preferences of the U.S.-friendly government.

First of all, it is clear that South Korea has no ambition to build nuclear arms of its own, even though some polls show South Korean people’s support for the possession of nuclear weapons hovering around 60 percent. South Korea, which successfully transformed itself into the fifth-largest producer of nuclear energy from a resource-poor country several decades ago, has become a cheerleader of the global nonproliferation regime. In reality, we are unable to return to the 1950-60s fraught with extreme poverty and famine. It’s because we already experienced the taste of capitalism. On top of this, South Korea has now a thriving civil society.

Second, it is relevant to the South Korean leadership’s actual intentions regarding nuclear weapons. In September 2004, for example, the standing committee of the national security council issued the four principles on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The South Korean government at the time reaffirmed that it would not have any intention to develop or possess nuclear weapons, faithfully abiding by international agreements on nuclear nonproliferation.

Spooked by the polls, nevertheless, the American nonproliferation policy circles vividly remember that the military-authoritarian Park Chung-hee government dabbled with developing a secret weapons program in the turbulent era of the 1970s until that was stopped under American pressure. The late Park, father of the Madame President, wrongly believed that the nuclear weapon could cause the people’s chest to swell with the national pride.

Allied with the strongest country in the world, however, South Korea cannot and will not be a North Korea. The two differ in their security perceptions and commitments, and frequently in their foreign policy orientations, except that they share the common ethnicity. The archrivals never found a groove, so to speak. Moreover, today’s real proliferation threat is not South Korea but North Korea which often violates international treaties with abandon.

Not everyone wants the ENR. But the new pact is not without flaws. There is an implacable opposition within the South Korean establishment. Despite the South Korean negotiators’ spin doctor-like activities in public and private, the hard-liners suspicious of the deal in the National Assembly and the larger South Korean policy community consider the ENR-free accommodations with the United States as contrary to South Korea’s vital interests in broader terms of the so-called nuclear sovereignty.

Any deal would require both sides to compromise. Now that South Korea plays as a poster child of trying to jump to the front of the America-led nonproliferation line, the United States needs to allow its staunch ally to adopt the once-in-a-generation agreement that is more suitable to its stages of nuclear energy development. In other words, the United States and South Korea could agree upon a final deal that would allow the Seoul government to have a right to enrich uranium if the uranium was not originally bought from the United States, regardless of whether or not South Korea would actually use the right.

All in all, while it is hard to predict how the complex details of a final accord can be resolved in the remaining months, it is time for the United States to think again about which policies or laws, on a case-by-case basis, will help today’s non-nuclear armed countries to forge the future they imagine.


*The author is director for Nonproliferation Centre at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation.

by Lee Byong-chul

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