Mark HibbsMJ, the 123, and the SLA

[Title rendered into English, by reader request: Chung Mong-joon (“MJ”), the U.S.-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement (“123 agreement”), and the State-Level Approach (SLA) for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. -Ed.]

On the occasion of Chung Mong-joon’s appearance at the 2013 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington last week, I doubt that Dr. Chung had scheduled audiences with either John Kerry or Yukiya Amano, but it would be a fair guess that both the U.S. Department of State and the IAEA paid very close attention to what MJ had to say on April 9.

These bits, which I excerpt from the transcript of his remarks, must have caught the attention of people in Washington who are negotiating with the ROK on nuclear cooperation right now, as well as those in Vienna who are responsible for verifying the ROK’s peaceful-use credentials under the IAEA Additional Protocol:

Facing an extraordinary threat to national security, South Korea may exercise the right to withdraw from the  NPT as stipulated in Article X of the treaty. South Korea would then match North Korea’s nuclear program step by step, while committing to stop if North Korea stops.

South Korea should be given this leeway as a law-abiding member of the global community who is threatened by a nuclear rogue state.

The alliance has failed to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Telling us not to consider any nuclear weapons option is tantamount to telling us to simply surrender.

During the coming week, the U.S. and the ROK will again attack the crux that since 2011 has bedeviled the negotiation of a new bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement: Seoul’s insistance that Washington provide it programmatic approval to enrich uranium and extract both plutonium and uranium from thousands of tons of spent fuel that, under the terms of the 1974 bilateral agreement that will expire next March, are defined as U.S.-origin and are therefore subject to U.S. consent. Until now, the U.S. Department of State has been unwilling to say yes to South Korea’s request.

MJ’s remarks last week don’t have to change that state of affairs. After all, it is quite clear–as a number of people who objected that Carnegie gave MJ an audience during our conference kept telling me–that Dr. Chung’s views do not represent mainstream Korean thinking, that the government of Park Geun-hye has not associated itself with MJ’s opinions, and that, just before MJ arrived in Washington to give his statement, a delegation of  lawmakers from the ROK National Assembly, representing both government and opposition parties, told U.S. Congressional counterparts that they didn’t agree with MJ either. If that’s not enough, keep in mind that during the entire negotiation on the 123 agreement, the ROK government has kept to its script that the negotiation has nothing to do with North Korea and nothing to do with nuclear weapons.

The U.S.-ROK 123 Context

In the run-up to Park’s state visit to Washington next month, Bob Einhorn’s team at the State Department and a bevy of NSC staffers are now preparing for what looks like what might be an interagency-guided President-to-President decision on this matter. Over the last month or so, I have heard in some quarters that, to demonstrate solidarity with what Park’s political advisers are telling the White House is America’s most steadfast ally in the region, the U.S. at the most senior level might be prepared to accomodate Seoul on enrichment and reprocessing, swayed ultimately by the Korean argument that in 1988 Washington had made the same concession to Tokyo.

What I’ll call here the “nonproliferators” among U.S. officials weighing in on this don’t want to do that. If they hold sway, as they have during the last two years, what might they tell their Korean counterparts after they frame MJ’s words of wisdom? I could imagine they might prepare an argument that goes something like this:

You know that the U.S. Congress has to approve this agreement. It’s no secret that until now people have assumed that, especially given all the force of persuasion that Korea has brought to bear on Capitol Hill, the Congress would never stand in the way of a draft bilateral agreement that comes down from Park and Obama. But after MJ leaves Washington, you can also assume that the transcript of his remarks will be circulated to each and every Senator and Congressman up there. When they read that, they’ll never approve a 123 agreement that says in effect that the U.S. will give a green light to South Korea for enrichment and reprocessing [ENR] as long as there are significant voices out there urging South Korea to consider the “option” to match North Korea’s nuclear development. If they want to match Pyongyang, they will have to enrich uranium and separate plutonium outside of IAEA safeguards. So if you want an agreement that lets you enrich and reprocess, you’ll have to convince the Congress. You already know what a couple of senior people at State have told lawmakers about what conditions should be in any new 123 agreement we negotiate. Those views are certainly not U.S. policy, but that doesn’t mean Congressmen will ignore them.

In fact, of course, it’s more complicated than that. The ROK has argued that only a fraction of the spent fuel in Korea is subject to U.S. consent rights, and the Korea 123 negotiation is not intended to deny Seoul’s right to ENR under NPT Article IV.

But when state visits are on the horizon, high politics can get stratospheric, stuff gets simplified, and some U.S. lawmakers might get the notion that handing over the keys to all that nuclear material while people are thinking about a nuclear “option” might not be the best way to proceed. The ROK narrative, on the other hand, is that MJ is a marginal figure and that the negotiation is only about South Korea’s civilian nuclear program.

The IAEA Context

IAEA DG Yukiya Amano (who led off the Carnegie conference on the morning of April 8) is, as is well known, not negotiating a 123 agreement with anyone just yet, he doesn’t have to worry about whether the U.S.-ROK mutual defense treaty holds, and he hasn’t seen pictures of a 30-something in a uniform pointing a swagger stick in the direction of Vienna followed by pictures of ballistic missiles being fired off to land on the Hofburg.

Amano’s staffers might be interested in what MJ has to say nonetheless, because they’re busy implementing safeguards in the ROK under the State-Level Approach.

Since 2008, the IAEA, following verification of nuclear activities subject to the ROK’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) and Additional Protocol (AP), has annually provided South Korea a so-called “broader conclusion” which attests that “all nuclear materials remained in peaceful activities” during the preceding calendar year. The ROK has a broader conclusion under the most current Safeguards Implementation Report.

After the ROK signed the AP in 1999, it took eight years for the IAEA to get to a broader conclusion. That was in part because the IAEA had found that a tiny amount of plutonium had been generated by irradiating depleted uranium in a reactor and then extracted in a hot cell, and that a small amount of highly enriched uranium had been produced with a laser. It also took awhile for the IAEA to reconstruct the history of the ROK’s nuclear R&D program. That included secret activities authorized by President Park Chung-hee. These, if they had not been nipped in the bud by the U.S., might have gotten Seoul into a game of chicken with Washington over security guarantees sometime during the 1980s. There was also the little detail that Korean activities which were exposed under the AP as ex post facto violations of the ROK’s safeguards obligations involved materials that had been previously exempted from IAEA safeguards. The IAEA isn’t too happy when this happens. There were also some safeguards issues concerning plans by the ROK to move forward on pyroprocessing work in the early 2000s more quickly than the IAEA saw fit. On balance, the ROK during the last three decades has had a lot of nuclear R&D on its plate, and the IAEA has been challenged to keep track of it.

MJ took the floor at the Carnegie conference in the middle of a discussion between the IAEA and member states about plans at the agency to extend the scope of the SLA. This is what it is about. You can check out the links in the article to explore what kind of things might be considered as state-level factors under the SLA. That brings us to Dr. Chung. What he had to tell us last week might be included in what the IAEA Department of Safeguards describes as “open and other sources” of information used to obtain a “holistic appreciation” of a country’s nuclear program.

Of course, it is up to IAEA safeguards personnel in Operations A and their superiors alone to decide whether Dr Chung’s Carnegie comments on April 9 have any relevance to a discussion of the ROK’s “broader conclusion.” I would argue that the SLA would probably compel the Department of Safeguards to include this information and consider it in their internal deliberations prior to making any determinations.

The real question however is how the IAEA would interpret and contextualize what Dr. Chung had to say.


  1. SQ (History)

    I haven’t seen a transcript, but seem to recall that when Dr. Chung was asked about the Park administration’s views of his twinned modest proposals — reintroduction of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea and the establishment of an independent South Korean nuclear force — he ducked, referring instead to public opinion.

    Certainly, if the polls are right, he’s the tribune of the mainstream on this question. Was there even a debate in the ROK on the subject? No administration that wants to maintain the alliance can seriously entertain these ideas. But nobody’s bothered arguing that side of the question in public, either.

    How much Dr. Chung really is complicating the 123 renewal talks is an open question. So is how much he recognizes that potential or cares about it. Maybe he considers it mere wonkish details, as they say in Korean. Or maybe he thinks that the ROK, which got its way on the revised missile guidelines, has a strong hand when it comes to its own core interests, and can prevail on the 123, and eventually on Art. X if necessary.

    I don’t know what he thinks. But I wonder. Should we ascribe a deep strategy to the Carnegie program in its decision to extend him an invitation? Was someone there happy to catalyze trouble? Nah. Couldn’t be!

    • mark (History)

      I confess I’m amused that the notion would arise that I or Carnegie would conspire to trap MJ in the interest of making trouble for South Korea. Last week there were completely different conspiracy therories swirling around the Carnegie conference to explain why MJ was invited to speak. These generally asserted that Carnegie was wittingly or unwittingly damaging the nonproliferation regime by encouraging a marginal actor to spread the word that South Korea should rethink its NPT commitment.

      I have no idea if the argument I put forth in italics above would ever materialize in a discussion between the two countries. As I explained in the blog piece, it’s equally likely on the basis of what people have said since Park’s election that the 123 negotiation will be handled at a very high political level in both governments without any influence provided by Dr Chung whatsoever.

      But I can relate that a number of very serious people beginning as soon as MJ’s appearance was over told me that they felt that his remarks about matching North Korea’s nuclear capabilities–which would involve reprocessing and enrichment–didn’t help the ROK’s case in the 123 negotiation.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Didn’t help it, or possibly did, in a different manner.

      Japan’s random lunatics who argued for their nuclearization have generally not been given much speaker time in the US, nor have they sought that, generally being the more rabidly nationalistic of their ilk in that country.

      One can imagine two (three) cases;

      1, lack of high level strategy, and he does not represent their government’s opinion on these things. Random interesting politician given stage, will talk. Interesting stage, interesting talk. Much hair-pulling ensues. Someone’s having a beer and laughing.

      2A, SK is very serious about either a much stronger US presence and a serious regime change strategy, including getting China and Japan on board (but do not actually intend to go nuclear);

      2B, or in the absence of that, they do have some momentum or consensus to withdraw from the NPT and weaponize.

      Between 1 and 2, is the difference between standing back and putting this on the rhetorical shelf and continuing the negotiations without major fit, and SK having had enough with NK now and they’re politely telling us this now and in this way rather than by firing across the inter-German… err, Korean border as a demonstration.

      If it is 2, then the question is 2A or 2B? If it’s 2A, they’re just trying to strongarm a consensus to solve this damn thing out of everyone. If it’s 2B, all our worst fears have been realized – one of our nuclear-threshold weapon-capable allies with a major threat on its border has Had Enough, our deterrent has failed to reduce their level of domestic fear, and Asia is about to break out in a round of proliferation.

      Which, if it starts, could grow to include Japan and possibly Australia.

      Somewhere, in the back of the room, a Chinese general stands up to ask a question…

      This plays into the Iran question, as regards to our Persian Gulf allies who might conceivably go nuclear if Iran does, to wit any or all of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

      So; 1, or 2? And if 2, 2A, or 2B?

      Interesting year ahead.

    • SQ (History)

      For all you know, Mark, I might have been one of those people making that comment! But come to think of it, another way to interpret Dr. Chung is that he’s really advising the ROKG to make a different sort of case for ENR privileges: let us hedge, so the regime can bend and not break — at least, not right away.

      But now I’m really, really getting into mind-reading.

    • Marv Peterson (History)

      In 1997, after serving seven years at the U.S. Mission to the IAEA in Vienna as Senior Scientific Counselor for Safeguards, my South Korean counterpart invited me for a one-on-one lunch at the Steyr Eck. The food and wine, followed by Wiener Melange and fine dessert, were excellent, and extremely expensive.

      We discussed many things, including ROK plans, or lack thereof, to implement the AP. When we finished, as I was saying my gratitude for several years of sharing nuclear safeguards policy between our two governments, he became very serious and closed our discussion with a final single phrase: “Remember, Mr. Peterson, my country needs Plutonium.”

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    It is easy to think up possible military applications.

    Is it equally easy to think up civilian applications that make economic sense? Or do the costs of the civilian applications exceed the civilian benefits? Is the argument simply over whether ROK should have a “right” to do something that brings no civilian net benefit, or does exercise of the right provide ROK a significant net benefit that is strictly civilian?

  3. Andreas Persbo (History)

    For one, I had to skip the following session [after MJ’s remarks] to catch my breath. It was good, though, as I found several friends loitering around outside, presumably also catching their breath.

    Like yourself, I would assume that his remarks have been noticed by Ops A. Not sure if they would fundamentally change the broader conclusion. I suspect they would if he’d had real decision making capacity, and the ROK had capability to enrich and reprocess. That scenario appears not so likely, but well within the the realm of possibilities. So it’s logged, and may be refreshed in the future. Like many things in life, stuff like this has a tendency to come back and bite you when you least expect it.

    • mark (History)


      I would certainly agree with you that the broader conclusion might change if MJ, as you say “had real decision making capacity, and the ROK had the capability to enrich and reprocess.”

      Separately, as you know from open reports by consultants which have served as input to SAGSI discussion of these issues, frequently mentioned as a state-specific factor in considerations about a country’s broader conclusion is the state’s track record of cooperation with the agency in implementing safeguards and providing transparency about its nuclear activities. The IAEA’s judgment about the ROK here would provide context for the agency’s evaluation of MJ’s remarks.

      Here’s an IAEA paper that discusses the “history of safeguards implementation for the state, and the nature of cooperation with the state:”

    • Andreas Persbo (History)


      Yes. Of course. However, the State Level Concept is still very much pathway-oriented and materials based. In other words, hot air won’t change much in terms of assessment unless there is real capability on the ground to back things up.

      I think that the US have a lot to think about when it comes to its various 123 agreements – including, but not limited to, the ROK. Policies and governments change, while capabilities remain. Policy is far more transient than brick and mortar.

      Looking forward to seeing you soon. /A

  4. Joe (History)

    “MJ, the 123, and the SLA” is as dense a blog-post title as I have ever seen :>} It took a bit of in-depth Googling to figure out the acronyms. Michael Jackson and Sealed Lead-Acid batteries kept coming up.
    It would be a great aid to those of us non-immersed in the minutia of Arms-Control (but attempting to learn) if the first use of acronyms could be expanded. It would help the flow of reading your excellent posts a lot.

    • mark (History)

      Mea culpa. The problem arises because our publishing program gives us just 23 characters to get it all on one line.

  5. archjr (History)

    Mark –

    Another great post. My view is that MJ’s comments are producing a lot of navel-gazing among those concerned, but they should not alter the conclusion that South Korea would prefer to remain a non-nuclear state, as evidenced by its NPT commitments and adherence to the AP. As George mentioned, there are similar saber-rattlers in Japan to whom we have given short shrift, based upon the preponderance of evidence that Japan is not likely to go nuclear.

    I am struck by a question sort of glossed over but to which I don’t know the answer: just how many atoms in the ROK are subject to U.S. consent rights? I imagine that number is south of its equivalent in Japan.

    If you are in the middle of a 123 negotiation, in principle this number should not matter: U.S. controls need to be as strong as they can be, irrespective of the consent rights that may or may not exist on non-U.S.-origin material.

    I think some of the subtleties of “programmatic consent” are missing here. The Japan agreement exchanged what is also known as U.S. “advance consent” to advanced fuel-cycle activities for unprecedented access to Japan’s future plans, and an implicit involvement in those plans in order to guarantee that U.S. consent rights remained significant and had a continuing influence on Japan’s decisions with regard to its manipulation of bomb-grade materials. At its base, this is what the U.S. is asking of South Korea (if it grants advance consent rights). The degree of transparency in bilateral nuclear and other relations is in itself a verifier of Japan’s peaceful nuclear intent.

    There is also plenty of reference in the Japan agreement to both parties’ NPT commitments and to IAEA safeguards, which continue to remain a primary, parallel verification system to that inherent in the U.S. – Japan nuclear agreement. I presume this will also be the case in any Korea 123.

    The point being the U.S. has important knowledge in nuclear and other spheres of engagement with Japan sufficient to provide a basis on which to gauge Japan’s intent regarding nuclear weapons, and the operation of the nuclear agreement adds important details that would otherwise not have been available to American analysts. So there is a degree of comfort there, if you will.

    If the U.A.E. agreement is “the gold standard” for countries with limited nuclear programs, which I believe it is, the new Korea agreement can be an opportunity to set a gold standard for nuclear cooperation with highly-advanced nuclear countries, and perhaps improve on the controls in the 25-year-old Japan agreement. IAEA safeguards apply, so far as we know, to every fissionable atom in South Korea, and they came clean – fast – when the experiments were discovered. To my knowledge, the ROK did everything possible to clear up the discovered anomalies in order to avoid an IAEA Board resolution, and they succeeded. This act in itself distinguished Korea from Iran at the time.
    The (finally!) last point is that the any new 123 agreement, for all the attention being paid to enrichment and reprocessing, can be a model for cooperation with countries that fulfill their nonproliferation commitments, and one that is consonant with those countries’ nuclear programs. Any commitments the ROK makes to the U.S. should apply in a pertinent way to all atoms in the country, and if they do, important precedents can be set for other nuclear agreements and the global nuclear trade in general. We should make lemonade out of lemons.

  6. mark (History)


    Thanks and its reciprocal. Looks like London in second half of May will be the next opportunity unless you will be in Vienna at or around the time of the next board meeting.

    To be clear: I think the IAEA would likely integrate MJ’s remarks into its overall assessment under the AP as I have suggested the SLA would prompt them to do. Absent any other significant information, however, I don’t see how comments like those made by MJ on April 9 by themselves could serve as justification to reverse or suspend a country’s broader conclusion. I don’t make that case anywhere in the post. Ops A staff is on the ground in the ROK and they have access to the IAEA’s country file. We aren’t, and we don’t.

  7. Daniel Horner (History)

    When I saw “MJ” in a headline next to Mark’s gravatar, I thought it might mean that Mark had gotten hold of inside info that the United States was upgrading its unofficial diplomatic representation in North Korea by sending Michael Jordan to follow his former teammate Dennis Rodman. Oh well….

    On the more substantive question of the impact of the recent North Korean developments on the U.S.-South Korean 123 agreement, another option that apparently is being bandied about goes something like this: As the North becomes increasingly confrontational, South Korea and the United States have to be as unified as possible. According to this line of thinking, the two sides should conclude their nuclear cooperation agreement in the next month or so by agreeing to defer the discussion of the divisive fuel cycle issues to some time in the future.

  8. mark (History)


    I think the State Department has enough on its hands dealing with Dennis Rodman’s shuttle diplomacy without pondering using another basketball luminary as a secret weapon…

    Yes, at the Asan Nuclear Policy Conference in February in Seoul I suggested that the existing agreement be extended and/or the fuel cycle/consent issue be bracketed out for a period of time that would be needed to resolve outstanding differences. This might be 1-2 years or as long as ten years to complete the joint study on ROK fuel cycle technology options including pyroprocessing.

    Some other people at the Asan meeting seemed to think that would be one way to go forward but I’m far from sure that either the ROK or the U.S. want to do it that way. Fred McGoldrick and Kim Duyeon have warned that an extension of the current agreement for a limited amount of time would for procedural reasons not be a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless my sense is that both sides are squarely focused on the Park state visit in early May.

    Fred and Duyeon’s thing is here:

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