South Korea's Nuke Waste Problem

South Korea has a good claim to being one of the world's nuclear nonproliferation exemplars, in the sense of continuing to abide by the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula despite the fact that its belligerent neighbor to the north has not. The declaration stipulates that South and North Korea "will not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons."

But what concerns the South Korean nuclear industry and pundits is the seriously limited storage space for their growing amount of spent nuclear fuel, rather than the nuclear weapon threats emanating from Pyongyang. It is a problem that will increase dramatically. Seoul plans to increase the country's nuclear power capacity by more than 50 percent by 2020 and by about another 35 percent by 2030. Today South Korea derives almost 40 percent of its energy from 20 nuclear reactors.

The country is prohibited from reprocessing its spent fuel, which can be made into weapons-grade fissile materials. And, as it accumulates to dangerous levels, an energy-hungry South Korea can do no more than stand and watch. Seoul can't meaningfully resolve the spent fuel that potentially can be used to make nuclear weapons unless Washington, the de facto gatekeeper at the door of global nuclear nonproliferation, provides a solution.

The ROK-U.S. nuclear energy agreement, signed in 1972 and revised in 1974, expires in March 2014. The 36-year old agreement prohibits Seoul from engaging in plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment without Washington's approval. Both countries agreed to complete amendment of the pact by 2012.

Few details have emerged, but the US is, we're told, fairly concerned about the fact that giving South Korea a reprocessing opening might give Seoul the opportunity to develop nuclear weapons to match North Korea's ambitions. But it's not true, despite the fact that twice, in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s, South Korea was cited by the International Atomic Energy Agency for carrying out secret uranium conversion experiments.

Thirty-six years ago, the authoritarian military regime led by Park Chung-hee was a poster child for the US-backed anticommunism fronts at the Cold War's height, even if Park's nuclear ambitions, built on virulent nationalism, collided with America's. Since Park's assassination in 1979, however, the behavior of South Korean governments has decidedly evolved. In short, Seoul's contentious nuclear aspirations have been well-tamed by its unprecedented economic prosperity.

In 1964, South Korea's exports amounted to US$100 million, equivalent to those of Ethiopia and Mozambique. Today, home to major global brands such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG, it has become the world's ninth-largest exporter, earning US$363.8 billion as of October 2009. It is thus unthinkable for any political leader to risk reversing the flow of economic abundance and political resilience in order to defy a possible trade embargo to develop nuclear weapons. Nor has the nukes idea caught on with the general public essentially because nobody wants to live in poverty and disorder again.

Up to now, South Koreans have enjoyed the benefits of market-friendly capitalism, which enabled them to escape from the deepest scars of poverty and terror since the 1950-53 Korean War. So people on the street can easily imagine how the hard-won economic wealth and complacency will eventually dissolve, at any time any political leader would try to exhibit even a modicum of nuclear ambition. The message for South Korea is that the hopeless North, which has sacrificed its people's wellbeing while developing nuclear weapons, represents a good example of what not to do.

South Korea's economy-first policy has functioned as the competitive advantage that allowed Seoul to build wealth and to widen the economic gap between the two arch-enemies. It's strikingly in contrast to the military-first politics of North Korea. As a result, South Korea has become the world's fifth-largest producer of commercial nuclear energy. Having won a US$20 billion contract to supply four reactors to the United Arab Emirates, it is set to become a major world nuclear energy exporter. Instead of investing in researching a nuclear weapons program, its robust economy has virtually fed in the name of energy resource security. It stands to reason that to be a competitive nuclear energy exporter, South Korea has to secure advanced reprocessing and enrichment technology.

As if on cue, to speed up the delayed negotiations over a new atomic energy pact, South Korea and the United States alike have recently injected fresh momentum into efforts to bring about the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Both countries committed themselves to a dual track approach: how to amend the existing nuclear agreement on the one hand and on the other, to research so-called pyroprocessing technologies independently or cooperatively, one of the most hotly contested issues.

Indeed, at a time when the spread of reprocessing and enrichment technologies poses a serious threat to global security, it is understandable that American policy-makers take as their first priority the control of the most sensitive fissile nuclear materials and its related technology transfer. That is from the standpoint of how decision-makers in Washington treat South Korea. In their eyes, South Korea is successfully portraying itself as a victim of the global nonproliferation regime.

Then is it fair to ask whether American decision-makers' recommended policies and institutions are actually appropriate for today's South Korea? Even at a superficial level, there seem to be bits and piece of historical evidence that suggest otherwise. The latest historical record of it is India, a country that is not a member of the Nonproliferation Treaty. The yardstick the US is applying to each country appears untrustworthy.

Still, as a member state of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, South Korea eventually has found it difficult and unnecessary to complicate the global nonproliferation agenda and provoke critical security concerns in Northeast Asia. In light of this as well as of the deep-rooted value alliance based on mutuality, fair exchange and good practice, the US should stand ready to help South Korea with reprocessing and enrichment. Above all, South Korea is not America's test-tube.

South Korea now needs to explain why reprocessing and enrichment based on commercial use of atomic energy make sense. In accordance with the IAEA safeguards and safety rules which are intended to allow countries to enjoy their right to have nuclear technologies while ensuring that there is no diversion for nuclear weapons, Seoul is getting ready to meet heightened levels of nuclear safety and transparency focusing almost exclusively upon nonproliferation. For South Korea, it's an acceptable lust. Seoul may expect Washington to publicly declare that "South Korea has unique energy security requirements... And the United States will never ask South Korea to take any steps that would undermine its energy security interests." What South Korea needs is, after all, a giant step, not baby steps. Washington should keep the civilian-use nuclear door as wide open as possible, if not intended to kick away the ladder by which it has already climbed up, in order to deprive South Korea of the economic benefits of climbing up after it.

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