South Korea Frustrated on Nuke Pact

A lot has been said recently about the future of the alliance between South Korea and the United States as President Barack Obama concluded his re-election campaign. Colleagues and, experts on the US point out that an alliance is like gardening. Neglecting things and not pulling weeds while they’re small can rapidly lead to a mess.

Similar things are happening in the atomic energy negotiations between South Korea and the United States. A cornerstone of the alliance for decades, the nuclear pact, which was signed in 1972 and revised in 1974, expires in 2014. Negotiations have been stuck for over 25 months since the kick-off of talks in October 2010.

Although it is unclear whether a last-minute deal would create any significant results before the Lee Myung-bak administration ends in February, many South Korean pundits predict that the second Obama administration won’t hasten any negotiations that would allow South Korea to develop nuclear energy technology. Although the game was probably already over from the moment two years ago when negotiations began, the negotiators seem to think that they can roll out a revised plan to dig South Korea out of the troubled spent fuel issue.

But negotiators of both countries should not assume that nuclear energy advocates in South Korea will not recoil from blunt nonproliferation prescriptions from Washington. While they’ve demanded that the US allow South Korea to expand nuclear technologies, these may have long-lasting political repercussions. Avoiding hard decisions could potentially undermine South Korea’s confidence in the alliance. The United States should listen carefully to what South Koreans are saying.

Indeed, South Korea, the world’s fifth- or sixth-largest producer of commercial nuclear energy, punctured the myth that only the nuclear-haves such as the US and France could be champions of the nuclear energy industry. South Korea’s advanced atomic technology is becoming a role model for some energy-scarce developing countries to follow.

The sad truth, however, is that South Korea is strictly forbidden by the pact to flirt with spent fuel and to secure enriched uranium in terms of energy security. Most problematic of all, South Korea clearly stated in the 1992 North and South Korean Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that it would forgo possession of enrichment and reprocessing facilities as a key component of realizing nuclear stability on the peninsula. The pact now symbolizes a liability for South Korea and weighs heavily on the US, which posits that South Korea’s reprocessing and enriching would violate the agreement. South Korea remains a whipping boy or a stepchild, so to speak.

The joint declaration was dead when North Korea tested its first nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009. The pact bears no direct relation to commercial enrichment but in reality, South Korea knows it must observe more regulated laws and rules than stipulated in the agreement, because as a country entirely relying upon exports South Korea cannot escape global sanctions in the event of violating international laws. Despite the North’s provocations, America refuses to admit the pact’s death. One might wonder why. The reason is strategic: to prolong the life of the declaration could prevent South Korea and Japan from developing nuclear weapons, not to mention assist in the denuclearization of North Korea.

President Obama now needs to show courage to North Korea, as evidenced by the late US President Richard Nixon’s bold breakthrough with China.

It’s not a fantasy to think that the US can put the right to limited enrichment (up to 5 percent, for instance), lift some sanctions and take regime change off the table, while simultaneously calling on the Kim Jong Un regime to open up all its nuclear facilities and to remove all its highly enriched uranium and plutonium on the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement, or CVID, basis.

Still, some left-leaning North Korea experts contend that the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia,’ a shift in strategy aimed at strengthening the United States’ military and economic ties with countries throughout the region, has similarities with the ideas of George Kennan, according to which the US should focus upon its economic might and find new allies to isolate the Soviet Union through a policy of containment, exerting military and economic pressure on Moscow.

In the meantime, the second Obama administration needs to move a few notches toward strengthening the nonproliferation governance over the weapons of mass destruction across the globe, in collaboration with South Korea which holds the nonproliferation banner higher than any other US ally.

The curtain in the South Korea-US nuclear theatre will likely come up again in a few months in the hopes that Americans will pride themselves on tearing down walls, not building them, even though South Korea’s advanced nuclear technology has led the nonproliferation wonks in Washington to conclude that the country has come closer to reprocessing and enriching. Washington will not easily tell Seoul what it expects to hear. Rather, the concern that the US will apply enhanced nonproliferation rules to South Korea is probably greater than for many South Korean pundits. The burden of concern is realistic.

Many analysts interpret the Obama administration’s nuclear policy as a sign of the president’s declaration of a nuclear free world. In their view, his clearly expressed wish to make the world nuclear free is forcing South Korea to become nuclear Luddites of the 21st century who resist pursuing technological change in nuclear energy. The US sees South Korea not as a strategic ally in Northeast Asia but as an ‘enfant terrible’ of the global nonproliferation regime.

Simply put, the Obama administration’s strategic stance is not as favorable as South Korean negotiators have thought. The US seems to want South Korea, a powerhouse with regard to commercial nuclear energy, to play good poster child in the nonproliferation playground, rather than to lecture the world about it, simply because South Korea lives right next door to the nuclear armed North Korea. The US considers South Korea’s pursuit of enrichment and reprocess as a potential long-term hedging strategy against a possible proliferated Northeast Asia where China and North Korea, two nuclear armed states and Japan with the full capacities of the fuel cycle which are linked to bomb-building at any time. Eventually, America’s uncompromising stance could unnecessarily feed anti-Americanism and encourage South Korean pundits to believe that Seoul could decrease cooperation between Seoul and Washington.

Negotiations therefore must have an emphasis on voluntary enrichment suspension as a confidence-building measure for the time being. South Korea may operationalize the incoming president’s statement in the Blue House banning the acquisition of nuclear weapons by passing legislation to that effect in the National Assembly: declaring South Korea a non-nuclear weapon state, enacting a new nonproliferation related law, strengthening legal export control mechanisms for nuclear material and technology; and strengthening the standards of physical security at all South Korean nuclear facilities. Plus, South Korean scientists might join the new president in declaring their refusal to any nuclear program that could be used for military purposes.

The key questions are whether the US just wants to manipulate South Korea’s exemplary nuclear program as a rationale for an international nuclear nonproliferation agenda, and whether South Korea’s intentions are truly peace-oriented, unlike those of North Korea.

For now, South Korea and the US need to be bold enough to recognize that fair exchange is the starting point and central tenet of negotiations, instead of raising the bar of each other’s expectations too high.

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