Renegotiating the South Korea-US Nuclear Pact

South Korea's unprecedented acquisition of a US$20.4 billion contract to develop nuclear power plants for the United Arab Emirates is fueling hopes of at least short-term economic development with regard to nuclear energy-related industries. The acquisition of the contract also marks the beginning of a new relationship with the United States over nuclear power. The largest single construction contact Seoul has ever won, it makes South Korea the world's sixth exporter of nuclear plants.

South Korea started operating its first nuclear reactor in 1978 with the assistance of the United States under an agreement forged in 1974. That agreement is now outdated. But it would not have been possible to see South Korea "standing shoulder to shoulder with the US, Japan, France and Russia" without the full support of nuclear-related technologies and knowhow from the US at the time. South Korea currently operates 20 nuclear power reactors, although it imports key components and core technologies such as reactor coolant pumps and man machine interface systems.

Forty-six years ago, the authoritarian military regime was one of the poster children for the US-backed anti-communism front during the Cold War. It was a country nearly on its back. South Korea's 1964 exports amounted to a paltry US$100 million, about the same as Ethiopia and Mozambique. By 1971, it had caught up with Portugal and the Philippines, exporting more than US$1 billion. By 2008, it had far outstripped them all. In 2008, Ethiopia and Mozambique exported US$1.6 billion and 2.7 billion, respectively. Portugal and the Philippines exported US$49 billion and US$56 billion, respectively. Today South Korea is the world's ninth largest exporter at US$363.8 billion.

In terms of economics and business, political systems and culture, South Korea is weaving a new landscape that is quite different from what most Americans might have seen through the prism of the old ramshackle South Korea, which had no choice but to accept the US-led pact that resulted in South Korea's entry into the nuclear community, with no changes. A ‘new version' of South Korea is the result of a series of dynamic trends that have been progressing over the last 50 years, trends that have so far created a unique atmosphere of unprecedented economic and political prosperity. Obviously, South Korea's nuclear technologies have now outpaced the client-patron relationship of the past.

The ROK-US nuclear energy agreement, which was initially signed in 1972 and revised in 1974, is officially to expire in March of 2014. Both countries reportedly agreed to reach the completion of the revision of the pact in 2012. Few details have emerged, but we are told that the US is much concerned about whether South Korea will seek to possess nuclear weapons in some way or another in the wake of obtaining the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

America appears unwilling to ‘radically' fix the 38-year-old pact, despite the fact that Seoul clearly declared in the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that it "shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons." The Declaration also stipulates that South Korea not only "shall use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes" but "shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities" as well. For this, there are very few to doubt that South Korea has ever placed an extraordinary amount of trust on the idea that this promise will be kept in one way or another.

South Korea, however, faces a critical issue over the reprocessing of spent fuel. Nuclear experts here in Seoul have begun warning that if South Korea is unable, at the current stage, to acquire additional places to store or some technical ways to curtail the amount of the controversial waste until around 2016, it might face a dangerous situation that threatens the operational safety of nuclear power plants, eventually leading to a national crisis due to the severe lack of electric power. South Korea's nuclear stations generate about 36 percent of the country's power.

Like other countries in the world building and operating the nuclear power reactors, not least the United States, South Korea finds it difficult to obtain suitable areas for additional disposal facilities that require the highest level of safety, not to mention the consensus of the interest groups and numerous residents around the sites to be designated. Given its scarcity of land and lack of energy resources such as oil and gas, the government cannot help considering the technical clues to resolve the waste, which must be in a realistic direction in terms of its growing dependence on nuclear energy.

Why does not the U.S. trust South Korea? Do the Korea policymakers in Washington suspect that South Koreans have the same mindset over nuclear weapons as the North Korean troublemakers? I'm not saying that a new pact is not essential for curbing nuclear proliferation, because North Korea's foolhardy attempts to obtain nuclear weapons have intensified US worries about the nuclear proliferation on the peninsula.

Part of the suspicions on the part of some in Washington are based on one or two cases that were enough to invoke some doubt over the mishandling of sensitive nuclear materials. In 2004, South Korea failed to report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a timely manner on a variety of nuclear issues including storage, production and use of uranium metals, among others. This factor has provoked a widely held sentiment that the US cannot fully trust South Korea, at least from the perspective of nuclear nonproliferation. South Korea, thus, needs to change such tone in Washington.

At the same time, however, the conventional wisdom in Korea is that the U.S. can no longer act like a so-called ‘Nuclear Gestapo' that attempts to define and dictate what is acceptable and what is not. A handful of critics against the US-led nuclear policy claim that America is still relegating South Korea to a corner reserved for second-class countries in terms of nuclear transparency. Figuratively speaking, it is at times necessary to take a wait and see attitude to see if a small tree will grow under the sun, rather than trying to uproot the tree every day to check the growth. And South Koreans are quick to know that their economy would undoubtedly be bankrupted if it were to attempt to develop nuclear weapons. The clueless North Korea is a prime example of a government willing to beggar its citizens in return for its nuclear ambitions. Yet, Seoul, unlike Pyongyang proudly scoffing at US President Barack Obama's goal of "achieving a world without nuclear weapons," is on a completely different track, aiming for liberal democracy and a free market economy.

So far, the US has, however, given no specific clues over its concerns over South Korea's goals. Both sides now appear circumspect. When tough negotiations begin in earnest, both countries need to convince each other in a sincere and wise manner, instead of bickering over how to amend the agreement. Seoul needs to persuade Washington that as a major global nuclear energy exporter, South Korea has no choice but to develop nuclear energy-related technologies while reassuring the US government that it has no intention to develop any kind of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the US should not rule out the possibility that the prior consent right given to Japan and Switzerland could be equally applied to South Korea, instead of demanding an unrealistic South Korean nuclear doctrine. The quality of the ROK-US alliance management has already become too critical to put the South Korean case on the back burner of the ready-made standard agreement being applied to the rest of the world, except for a few strategically crucial allies of America.

In order to transform the nuclear energy debate framed in 1970s into that of the 21st century, there is no reason that the US can't communicate better with South Korea, its major ally in Northeast Asia. So South Korea is urging the US to reconsider its unbudging stance.

Byong-Chul Lee is a senior fellow of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Center at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a nonpartisan policy advisory body based in Seoul.