US Must Rethink Stance on Korea Nuke Pact

The United States is dragging its feet over negotiating with South Korea over the full revision of the atomic energy agreement between the two countries, which was initially signed in November 1972, revised in May 1974 and expires in 2014. It is a treaty that desperately needs revision if South Korea is to fully meet its burgeoning energy needs.

South Korea is a resource-poor country, lacking almost any natural resources. It spends billions of dollars each year to import 100 percent of its crude oil. To resolve energy shortages during its industrial modernization drive, South Korea has pursued the build-up of nuclear power plants, now operating 21 reactors. Along with the economic success called the Miracle on the River Han, the South’s advanced atomic technology has become the role model for some developing countries seeking to resolve energy scarcity.

The South Korean nuclear industry is running out of space to store its spent fuel rods. It wants to reprocess these fuel rods for fuel as well as to augment its position as a rising international manufacturer and exporter of nuclear reactors and power plants. Although reprocessing can produce bomb-grade plutonium, South Korea has vowed never to do that.

The country has already become the world’s sixth-largest producer of commercial nuclear energy, taking part in international bids to build nuclear reactors that would allow the beneficiaries to produce a substantial part of the electricity they need. To this end, it stands to reason that to be a competitive nuclear energy exporter, South Korea has to secure advanced reprocessing and enrichment technologies.

The US administration, however, is trying to dissuade South Korea from producing its own atomic fuel out of a fear that any low-level uranium enrichment would inevitably lead to high-level enrichment of bomb-grade materials — and then to a regional arms race in Northeast Asia where China, Japan and North Korea stand. Japan is known to be ready to transform itself into a nuclear armed country at any time if it wants. Its reprocessing capabilities are permitted by the US. South Korea is the only country in the region that is still denied the ability to reprocess.

The reason is essentially because of Seoul’s own history of nuclear weapons development in the 1970s so as to counterbalance military threats from North Korea. Another reason was, according to a report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in March, 2010, the 1974 Indian’s nuclear test which prompted the US to turn against the spread of reprocessing technologies.

Still, I am absolutely dumbfounded by American officials who are trying to prevent South Korea from trying to implement the necessary technology related to reprocessing other than putting into water storage facilities the spent fuel out of the country’s reactors. As South Korea plans to increase its reliance on nuclear energy, it is inevitable that it depend on imported uranium, which could spark a sharp concern about energy security, not to mention spent fuel disposal problems.

However, the US has consistently and effectively opposed all reprocessing activities on nonproliferation grounds. This is a kind of self-denial in that under a 1988 bilateral agreement, the US permitted Japan to reprocess US-origin spent fuel, domestically and overseas. As the people of a sovereign state, South Koreans feel humiliated and convinced that the US policy stance to disallow reprocessing is the possibility of South Korea becoming another nuclear armed state.

South Korea is a stable, pro-western country and has already signed a nuclear agreement with the US -- the agreement that has greatly contributed to the development of South Korean nuclear industry but which needs to reflect the changed environment of the global nuclear market as well as domestic demands in recent years. What’s more, Seoul is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which explicitly allows participants to enrich uranium for peaceful power production. And there is no denying that South Korea will likely reaffirm its willingness for transparency on all matters relating to the production of nuclear power plants.

Why should South Korea be denied the right to use its own technology to reprocess spent nuclear fuel? Why suspect this country of doing exactly what it has said it has no intention of doing? Why deny South Korean nuclear technology out of fear of some “worst-case scenario” that would see the current situation replaced by one that attempts to develop a bomb? It’s the Communist North Korea that America should have focused on for the proliferation of nuclear weapons, not its ally South Korea.

South Korea has been negotiating with the United States to resolve the direction and depth of the agreement. My assumption is that both countries have committed themselves to a dual-track approach: how to amend the existing nuclear agreement on the one hand and on the other, to research the pyro-processing technologies independently or cooperatively, one of the most hotly contested issues, which has been stalled for a long time.

Ranking with Japan in historic and economic significance, South Korea is a great believer in peace and stability in an uncertain region. Long ago, for example, the government expressed its unreserved support for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula with no regard to North Korea’s numerous violations over denuclearization, as if Washington negotiators are “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.”

Opponents of South Korean nuclear policy point out that there is a certain risk in allowing Seoul to reprocess spent fuel and enrich uranium because of its past record, but the risk in accepting Seoul’s request is far smaller. There is much more at stake here than American negotiators’ firm stance to ban the reprocessing of spent fuel. This is about the fundamental question: What is America to us?

Almost 30 years have gone since I entered university. Koreans’ perceptions of America are no longer shaped only by what America did during the 1950-53 Korean War. Sadly, however, plenty of conservative people still claim that “We should not forget that American blood in the Korean War had fertilized the land well.” Now is not the 1950s or 1980s. The memories of democratization, not to mention the war, are like shadows lengthening at dusk. Even those are bound to fade one day.

The US should strengthen those who want peace and stability in the region, since I don’t believe the nuclear sticks the US is using are the right leverage. The US must remember that pragmatic rationalists are here in the South Korean government, enjoying economic success and political freedom rather than the dire situation facing a nuclear armed North Korea. Like American negotiators, South Korean ones think that under a free and democratic political regime, the government is fundamentally wedded to stabilizing the system as a whole.

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