A US-South Korea Nuclear Pact

It appears, in the wake of US President Barack Obama's visit to South Korea last week that the US still has reservations about allowing Seoul to reprocess spent plutonium for industrial uses, partly because of Japan's concerns, having been the only country that has had a bomb dropped on it, and because of the dilemma of the outlaw nuclear program in North Korea.

The decades-old atomic agreement between South Korea and the US – signed when South Korea's economy was about the size of North Korea's today – is to expire in March 2014. Under the terms of the agreement, Seoul is barred from reprocessing used plutonium or enriching uranium – two processes that in addition to creating nuclear fuel can be used to produce fissile material for a weapon.

There is a basic perception in Seoul that the ROK-US nuclear energy agreement, outdated as it is, must be revised to embrace industrial demands of nuclear energy as well as an enhanced role for South Korea in the world. The pact was initially signed in 1972 and revised in 1974 in the height of the cold war.

But beyond the idea of increased demands for nuclear power, any consensus is unlikely to be made because of a sharp difference of perspectives over whether it's appropriate to allow Seoul to reprocess and enrich spent fuel which could make the development of nuclear weapons possible, if not impossible in theory.

Prejudice against the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel prevails. However, South Korea's nuclear energy-related technologies have significantly improved, in ways the US and other nuclear advanced countries have scarcely imagined, in part because South Korea has invested hugely in nuclear energy infrastructure in the way the advanced countries did in the past.

To this end, it was a small but very meaningful first step to announce at the October 25 meeting that "South Korea and the US discussed a proposed joint study of nuclear power reactor spent fuel disposition options, including pyroprocessing." Pyroprocessing-type reprocessing can provide one of the most effective mechanisms to 'economize risk' in South Korea, far smaller than the US state of California in size.

Of course it does not mean that South Korea's strong nonproliferation record will seek to pursue the 'Sinatra Doctrine': doing the reprocessing and enrichment its way after paying a lip service to coordinated action to monitor and stop would-be proliferators. The fundamental object of nuclear energy independence is to bring about 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number.' In this context, the US should stop questioning South Korea's nuclear fuel cycle activities being implemented in accordance with its transparent mid- and long-term nuclear energy program. South Korea has no intention to push the tide of nuclear nonproliferation in the opposite direction. Nor can it do so.

South Korea may prove to be a great ally in this period of uncertainty, given President Barack Obama's ambition, announced in his April, 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Republic, to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. In order to generate insights and to clarify the goals and consequences of legal regulation that deepen understanding of the global security through nuclear nonproliferation South Korea would not hesitate to become a poster child of Obama's nonproliferation truism where he can make his bones.

Nuclear nonproliferation, it appears, has become a supreme virtue in the Obama administration's foreign policy. No thoughtful people can evaluate Obama's nuclear vision without marveling at his characteristic optimism, his balance, and his prescience. To avoid the 'blacker' despair in the wake of the specter of possible nuclear attacks in high-tech modern times, we must interpret Obama's commitment as warning rather than prophecy. Nuclear terror and horror are now prominent features of our global security landscape.

Unfortunately, however, reality is more complex. A report from an international commission on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, co-chaired in December, 2009 by former Japanese foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, had a small but very impressive diagram showing the likely impact of a Hiroshima-magnitude bomb detonated inside a van in Trafalgar Square. Estimated fatalities were 115,000.

And proven by the case in March 2010 of smuggling highly enriched uranium through the black market in Georgia, we are still some distance away from the picture of the future to be drawn by Obama. Witness as well the announcement Tuesday by Jon Kyl, the chief US Senate Republican negotiator, to block Obama's ambitious hopes for the upper house to ratify a new arms control treaty with Russia by the end of the year.

As Obama said in Prague, nuclear weapons could not be completely eliminated in his lifetime, and the United States would maintain a nuclear deterrent as long as other hostile states and terrorist groups possess or threaten to acquire these weapons. No one can say for sure that non-state actors will not hold the world to ransom in the foreseeable future.

Somewhere between these two judgments – utopian idealism and mutually assured destruction – lies the truth. But it lies much closer to the second judgment than to the first. Seriously concerned, Obama himself took the chair of a nuclear-security summit in Washington on April 13, 2009 and persuaded 47 world leaders and three representatives of international organizations in attendance to pledge to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years. His "frontier idea" still seems to roll and flood in the minds of sound citizens in the world.

Reread Obama's Prague address in which he warned of the possibility that nuclear material could fall into the hands of terrorist groups or rogue states. It showed us what should be done with visions. His "Global Zero" is the global citizens' Odyssey.

Nevertheless, Obama's rhetoric and unflinching efforts have not yet reached the level of accepted truth. Whatever he does in terms of nonproliferation alchemy, whether these regimes deliver the expected achievements depends ultimately upon whether nuclear terrorists – including rogue states like North Korea – that are keen to develop nuclear weapons will abandon their reckless desire or not.

We must not forget that letting the nuclear nonproliferation regime loose without any restraint is not the best way to make the world safe, since a weapon fashioned from an apple-sized chunk of plutonium or from larger amounts of highly enriched uranium could devastate innocent hundreds of thousands of lives. Sticks and carrots should be offered simultaneously to reduce nuclear dangers, instead of double standards that only benefit the US in terms of nuclear energy cooperation.

The nonproliferation ideology is built on the strong belief that nuclear weapons "have changed everything except our way of thinking," as Albert Einstein memorably said. Little wonder that as the only nuclear top dog after the breakup of the Soviet Empire, the US has been an aggressive user, and in certain areas a pioneer, of nuclear weapons intended to overwhelm its archrival's military strength.

In truth, US military predominance would not have got where it is today without an advanced nuclear weapons program. The role of the US administration in nuclear infrastructural development and supporting R&D, which continues to this day, also needs to be noted, in the sense that one of the greatest foreign policy successes for over a half-century since the Second World War has been the establishment of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Now that the degree of danger over nuclear terrorism has increased in many respects, it is easy to understand why Washington as the global policeman sees the very existence of nuclear weapons as the ultimate source of the global insecurity and why Obama outlined the practical necessity of cooperating with global governance which could mitigate and control the perils of nuclear uncertainty. The Obama administration's approaches seem to be morally justified and to move in the right direction. The moral force for banning nuclear nonproliferation depends heavily on the assumption that the US is in some way responsible for creating the nuclear weapons disaster we now seek to avert.

Yet is it really true that a set of good policies, good institutions and good norms currently recommended to the nuclear developing or middle-level countries, such as South Korea, is the agenda that was easily adopted by the nuclear developed countries, such as the US, when they themselves were developing? The short answer to this question is that the US did not get where it is now through the policies, institutions and norms to which it flatly denies South Korea technological access.

Indeed the US in past decades conducted a variety of 'dangerous' nuclear fuel cycle activities that these days are frowned upon, if not actively banned, by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The US's double standards and agreements have been legitimately criticized for not doing enough to reduce nuclear threats. And that became the prism through which the nuclear weapons-free world was and is viewed.

The term world 'free' of nuclear weapons reduces the 'freedom' of the nuclear developing countries, such as South Korea, that make use of nuclear power only for peaceful civilian purposes. For South Korea, showing a growing interest in obtaining advanced nuclear technologies amid a cacophony of voices, the world is by no means flat, at least in the field of nuclear energy technologies that include the reprocessing of nuclear spent fuel and uranium enrichment.

Moreover, aside from the argument whether the unilateral banning of reprocessing and enrichment favored by the US would function well or deliver expected results, South Korean nuclear scientists and pundits from left, right and center all suspect that some American decision-makers who are refusing to create a more middle ground for peaceful use of the spent fuel appear deeply buried in the mind-set of what people call American Orientalism, hidden in the logic of nuclear proliferation.

Because of the mixed image of the fratricidal 1950-53 Korean War and authoritarian military dictatorship in the past through the prism of die-hard Orientalism, South Korea is rarely viewed as a normal, economically successful and civilized state but rather as problems to be solved or confined – as the erstwhile colonial powers openly coveted their territories.

Plus, what these widely diffused notions of South Korea depended on is due to US policymakers' pedagogical view– 'follow the global norm or perish' – towards South Korea, a top-15 country in terms of economic size. Viewing Seoul as one of the limited cooperative countries displays Washington's callous disregard for the ROK-US alliance, which is hardening Obama's nuclear-free world pledge into dogma and prejudice over time.

Instead of taking a black-and-white approach toward the nonproliferation mission, therefore, the Obama administration should help South Korea clear the high hurdles of reprocessing and enrichment, if not intended to highlight the George Orwell's well-known dictum found in his novel Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Byong-Chul Lee is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul