The United States and South Korea are major partners when it comes to the manufacture and sale of civilian nuclear power equipment. But that partnership, and maybe much more, could come under pressure if the two can’t come up with a broader agreement on licensing nuclear technology.
A big part of the problem, not surprisingly, is North Korea and its already advanced nuclear weapons program.
South Korean politicians are wondering how their government can reconcile licensing limits on its nuclear technology sales when its outlaw neighbor to the north seemingly enriches uranium at will and openly tests nuclear weapons?
But the licensing of advanced nuclear technology is tricky business, even among close allies.
So far, Washington and Seoul have been unable to reach a broader nuclear technology licensing agreement. So they are extending their 1974 accord for another two years.
In doing so, they are scrapping what was supposed to have been a high profile event at the White House May 7 in which presidents Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama were to have showcased a next-generation civilian nuclear accord.
Here’s the problem:
South Korea is a leading producer of U.S.-licensed nuclear reactor technology. But it can’t become a full-service provider until it completes the nuclear cycle by enriching uranium at the start, and by reprocessing spent plutonium at the end.
U.S. licensing consent
U.S. consent to enrich and reprocess is what’s holding up the deal — a delay that could be felt by Americans as well as South Koreans.
“Not only is South Korea dependent on U.S. nuclear material for its emerging role in the market as a global supplier, but U.S. reactors are built with indispensable Korean components,” says Victor Cha, chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research group.
Extending the current accord, known as the 123 Agreement, doesn’t solve the problem, but it does buy time.
“For President Park, some opponents will try to characterize the outcome as a defeat to U.S. strong-arm tactics, but the reality is that this is a highly complex negotiation that requires more time than was available in the run-up to the summit,” Cha says.
Reasons to delay
Delaying the negotiations on a new accord “benefits industry by creating some sense of predictability and is politically neutral,” according to Cha.
U.S. officials agree.
“Both sides decided that seeking an extension was appropriate in order to allow sufficient time to negotiate this complex and technical agreement,” says Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman at the State Department. “It’s a very highly complex and technical type of negotiation, and both parties felt that more time would be useful.”
He says it’s not any one thing holding up the extension but that “all the details are being looked at carefully.”
Jack Spencer, a specialist on energy issues at the Heritage Foundation, says nonproliferation and nuclear advancement are not mutually exclusive and, in this case, could be self-reinforcing.
“A fair agreement will recognize South Korea’s emerging role as an international leader in the global commercial nuclear industry by allowing it access to the technologies it needs — such as proliferation-resistant used-fuel-management technology — while maintaining tighter controls on technologies such as enrichment, which the U.S. correctly understands as carrying a higher proliferation risk,” Spencer says
Failure “could stir nationalist feeling amongst progressives in South Korean society who rebel against any perceived U.S. pressure,” he says. “Contentious negotiations could be used to fuel anti-American emotions and cause unnecessary strains in the U.S.–ROK relationship.”
The North and its nukes
But another issue comes into play – North Korea and its nuclear weapons development.
National Assembly member Chung Mong-joon told a Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that South Korea is facing an “extraordinary threat to national security” from Pyongyang and may withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty entirely.
“South Korea would then match North Korea’s nuclear program step-by-step, while committing to stop if North Korea stops,” Chung said. “South Korea should be given this leeway as a law-abiding member of the global community who is threatened by a nuclear rogue state.”
While members of the Park government were quick to reassure U.S. officials that Chung does not speak for his country’s leadership, his comments do show frustrations at the limits of six decades of post-war cooperation with Washington.
“The alliance has failed to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Chung said. “Telling us not to consider any nuclear weapons option is tantamount to telling us to simply surrender.”
Recognizing how closely Iran is watching the international community’s approach to North Korea, U.S. officials are mindful that a broader 123 Agreement with South Korea could further provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“We’re not asking for one country to be inferior or less capable of defending itself, or not capable of projecting its interests in the world. We’re simply saying the world does not need more nuclear countries and nuclear weapons,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul.
“It is patently clear that if one country unilaterally moves into the nuclear status today,” Kerry continued, “it will force other countries to do the same because of the action/reaction nature of deterrence and threat perception, and the realities of populations driving their countries and putting them into nuclear corners that we don’t want them in.”