Seoul Faces Standoff with US over Nuclear Pact

South Korea’s President Lee walks to a news conference during the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Pressure is growing on the part of conservative pundits and politicians in Seoul to push for expansion of the range of South Korea’s missiles and to enrich uranium.

South Korea now operates 22 reactors and plans to increase that number to 38 by 2030. These reactors will produce more than 110,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel by 2100, but South Korea is not allowed to reprocess it, according to its nuclear nonproliferation pact with the United States, which expires in March 2014.

Both the guidelines and the atomic energy pact have halted the South’s missile and nuclear energy development technologies, although amid growing arguments that the US now should stop seeing South Korea only through a nonproliferation prism. The expiry of the pact is likely to become a major source of friction unless the US makes concessions.

The right-leaning columnist Kim Dae-jung of the Korean-language daily Chosun Ilbo and Rep. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Senuri Party have expressed qualms about the current policy, suggesting that the development of a nuclear weapons program or the re-introduction of tactical nuclear weapons could deter a possible second war on the peninsula.

In contrast to their hawkish approach to North Korea’s nuclear threats, South Korean officials know that in particular, enrichment and reprocessing are only a distant possibility and one that could stir a diplomatic standoff with Washington, DC.

Pessimism over securing Washington’s agreement is hardly groundless, since the United Arab Emirates already promised the US that it would not engage in enrichment activities or spent fuel reprocessing.

Recent talks have raised serious doubts about the US’s policy stance. In broader terms, America’s firm opposition to the spread of weapons of mass destruction has given South Korean decision-makers a headache. Washington has so far ignored Seoul’s efforts to win endorsement of new missile and atomic energy policies.

It goes without saying that South Koreans now feel more frustrated and betrayed than ever, snubbed by the US in negotiating over matters of missile control and nuclear technology cooperation and development. It is starting to appear inevitable that relations will continue to be strained with the US.

As long ago as the 1970s, when the US hinted that it could pull its troops out of the South, nationalists asserted that their country’s only protection against North Korea was the development of a nuclear weapons program. In November 1971, then-President Park Chung Hee told O Won-chol, then in charge of developing defense-related heavy and chemical industries: “Our national security is vulnerable because of the uncertainty surrounding continued US military presence on the Korean peninsula. To become secure and independent, we need to free ourselves from dependence on US military protection … Can we develop nuclear weapons?”

Although it unsettled the US, Park’s nuclear aspiration was based on geopolitical strategy rather than on national pride, but an answer to the question was buried as Park was assassinated in 1979. Since then, any approaches to stepping up the South’s sensitive atomic materials- and missile- related activities have been closely monitored and banned.

The results were ironic. While North Korea’s Rodong missiles have a range of 1,300 km and China has ICBMs with more 2,000 km, South Korea’s missiles cannot fly over more than 300 km because of ROK-US missile guidelines which also limit the payload to 500 kg. South Korea may well feel compelled to acquire longer-range rockets that cover the Korean peninsula.

Unfortunately, the US is using South Korea as an example of the success of its four-decade-old nonproliferation regime. A major worry now is that the younger generation now feels humiliated by America’s unilateralism. The inequalities of the missile guidelines and the atomic pact in the face of the north’s belligerence have sparked a tug of war between Seoul and Washington, kicking off a heated diplomatic row between the two allies.

In particular, junior nuclear energy and security specialists castigate South Korea’s over-reliance on the US as dangerous. A Korea-US alliance to amend the missile guidelines and the atomic pact in a more equal and transparent manner has become a litmus test of the South’s emphasis on value alliance.

On cue, Chosun Ilbo carried a series of feature articles reporting on not only the much-debated guidelines that limit the range of South Korea’s missiles to 300 km and the payload to 500 kg but the controversial atomic energy agreement that specifically prohibits South Korea from engaging in proliferation-related activities, such as uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent fuel.

The series was based on research and interviews by a team of the conservative newspaper’s reporters, who comprehensively covered the highly flammable issues. Many, including myself, saw the consecutive pieces as the clearest signal that the mainstream is beginning to doubt whether the set of policies, institutions and norms recommended to South Korea is the agenda that was universally applied to other countries. A lot of South Korean nuclear experts have engaged in passionate debate about so-called US nonproliferation Orientalism, that is, prejudicial distrust of a loyal ally and disregard of its sovereign national interest.

From their perspective, America has double standards on nuclear power, as demonstrated in the disputed US-India atomic deal that took place behind a veil of strategic national interest rather than nonproliferation.

The comparison is sure to resound ever louder and South Koreans will not quietly accept a so-called 123 agreement which forswears uranium and plutonium reprocessing to buy American nuclear reactors and fuel. An American proposal similar to the 123 agreement is to be handed down to South Korea, which believes that proliferation of nuclear power would not lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons.

There are substantial differences of opinion between South Korea and the US about the fundamental recognition of the nonproliferation regime and how to address the potential dangers of global terrorism.

Inevitably, the South Korean government is in a dilemma. Its embrace of America’s nonproliferation values and its clumsy attempts to distance itself from America’s principles of disallowing any kind of nuclear reprocessing and enrichment are more than two sides of the same coin. In the past, South Korea’s murky behavior in attempting to do clandestine nuclear research placed it in an uneasy position in the global nonproliferation system. Thus, the dire-hard claims in favor of the disputed nuclear weapons program are an unmistakable reminder of the inappropriate behavior.

An overwhelming number of South Koreans fully recognize that if the country were to pursue a nuclear weaponization program, its economic demise would be inevitable. They argue that the only way to rally the cooperation from the US it needs to resolve strategic realities is through a clear commitment to the goal of a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons. It’s because they are well aware that it would not only gain nothing but could lose everything.

The larger problem is that South Korea’s impressive contributions to global nuclear security and safety dialogue have failed to earn the country trust. There seem to be reasons for the US to assume that South Koreans are not going to lose their confidence once the US is keeping the alliance intact. But I’m just not sure that’s the right assumption. Furthermore, the US goes around the world telling countries that a few more nuclear warheads are threatening global safety and security, as if thousands of nuclear weapons of its own don’t matter.

It’s time to think again, not merely to recalibrate old formulas in order to recharge the 59-year-old alliance, given that South Korea’s strategy to raise its status of economic and military self-independence in international trade and regional security is well and truly underway.

South Korea has invested a lot of diplomatic capital in strengthening the nonproliferation regime for the US in the face of domestic opposition from North Korea’s never-ending nuclear experiments.

It is thus urgent for the US to do what it can to help South Korea become a cheerleader for nonproliferation, as clearly evidenced in the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit. South Korea is a candidate for behaving as a cheerleader only if the US finds its loyal ally very different from other countries, such as North Korea and Iran, whose irrational behavior worries the US. Unlike these countries, which have ignored UN Security Council resolutions demanding they suspend nuclear experiments and uranium enrichment, South Korea is neither a nuclear daredevil nor the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

There is no question that South Korea’s sound nuclear expansion does not inherently pose a proliferation risk. With the headquarters of Samsung, Hyundai and LG located on the peninsula, South Korea feels no need to have a convenient cover for nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, South Korea as a democratic and transparent country with a perfect record of nonproliferation is a terrific admirer of the nuclear-free world mantra. The government will likely move with Americans to deter potential nuclear terrorism across the world. To this end, it is necessary to convince the US that South Korea’s nuclear enrichment and reprocessing would not gravely threaten either its regional security or the global one.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom is that South Korea needs to show more concrete evidence that its nonproliferation efforts are real and credible. The dominant view in Washington is that Seoul should be encouraged by giving it tangible signs of reciprocation. Taken together, confidence-building is going to be a long process.

Reliable and credible negotiations would not require the right to reprocess or enrichment immediately but only the transparent assurance that the two could make the world safe. By scoffing at nationalistic nuclear thinking, the two allies could enhance prospects for the nonproliferation regime. It is now up to the decision-makers of Seoul and Washington to come up with a bold agreement at the allegedly heyday of the alliance. None of this will simply emerge by itself, though.

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

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