Mark HibbsHeading for the Wire on US-ROK 123

The Republic of Korea and the United States are running out of time to finish negotiations on a bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation. The current agreement from 1974 expires next March. The conventional wisdom is that because the U.S. Congress requires 90 days of continuous session to review a finished agreement before entry-into-force, the two sides have until sometime in June to close on this–not a lot of time given that Washington and Seoul have what look on the surface like irreconcilable differences over Korea’s freedom to reprocess or pyroprocess irradiated nuclear fuel under a new agreement.

In Seoul a few weeks ago, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies asked me, Sharon Squassoni from CSIS, and Scott Snyder from the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss with Korean experts at the Asan Nuclear Forum 2013 what will likely transpire. Our respective views may be different in nuance, but regarding the fate of the negotiation they seemed consistent. In retrospect, I think the panel covered the essentials, but we may have been a little spooked by the intense reaction at Asan to the DPRK’s third nuclear explosive test, which happened just a few days before.

I was in the ROK when North Korea in 2009 tested the second time, and when I arrived back in the country on February 17 I didn’t think that South Korea’s reaction to the third test would be any different. Within 48 hours after arriving in Seoul, it was clear that I was wrong about that. Martin Fackler and Choe Sang-hun from the New York Times were on hand in Seoul with us and their piece this morning summarized the overall tenor.

Even before we showed up at the conference in Seoul, participants were informed by e-mail that the agenda of the Asan meeting would be changed to reflect intense concern about the test. At the top of the meeting in the morning of March 19, Chung Moon Joon, a ROK parliamentarian, former presidential candidate, and a member of the Hyundai family, which funds Asan, endorsed the redeployment of U.S. theater nuclear weapons on ROK territory, and then offered this: “Some even say that the only way to solve the North Korean nuclear problem is for South Korea to follow the India-Pakistan example, or the case of Israel, a country that is most close to the U.S. politically, but acknowledged to have nuclear weapons. Having our own nuclear arsenal may be the only way to negotiate a ‘grand bargain’ with North Korea.” During the conference, Asan reported the results of fresh opinion research conducted in the shadow of the DPRK test suggesting that a majority of South Koreans favored the ROK having nuclear weapons.

These were my talking points for the discussion on the US-ROK negotiation:

  • As time passes, it will become increasingly difficult for the U.S. to argue that the ROK should not carry out R&D on pyroprocessing. That’s because 1) South Korea can assert with confidence that its nuclear power program fully justifies searching for a long term technology-based solution for sustainable management of ever-larger volumes of spent fuel, 2) South Korea is in full compliance with the NPT, is implementing an Additional Protocol with the IAEA, and benefits from an annual “broader conclusion” from the IAEA Department of Safeguards that all nuclear activities in the ROK are declared and dedicated to peaceful uses, and 3) a cornerstone of U.S. policy against ROK reprocessing–the 1992 no-reprocessing/enrichment agreement between the ROK and the DPRK–has been abrogated by Pyongyang.
  • The U.S. also has a credibility problem because in 2008 it concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement with India–a state with nuclear weapons outside the NPT–providing India programmatic approval to reprocess its U.S.-origin spent fuel under IAEA safeguards.
  • So far, neither the U.S. nor the ROK is prepared to back down from firm, mutually incompatible positions concerning the ROK’s rights to “alter in form or content” irradiated nuclear material under a new agreement.
  • DPRK enrichment, reprocessing, and weapons-making demonstrate to the ROK that the joint 1992 pledge with the DPRK is history. The U.S. continues to maintain that the 1992 agreement is still in force.
  • Neither side would have a clear advantage in holding out for the existing agreement to expire. U.S. negotiators may assert that ROK entities do not own enough intellectual property to emancipate the ROK from U.S. consent rights, implying that without a new agreement under Washington’s terms, Korean industry in March 2014 must suspend construction of nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates covered by a $20-billion contract.
  • The ROK might counter that the U.S. will want to conclude a new agreement on time to respect the UAE’s vital interest in completing its nuclear plant project without delay.
  • The fresh DPRK test may underscore to the new ROK government the salience of its alliance with the U.S. If so, at the eleventh hour President Park may not go to the mat with the U.S. over nuclear consent rights.
  • There are two distinct ROK spent nuclear fuel dilemmas. The first is the near-term threat that reactors must shut down because there is no more space in wet pools at reactor sites. The second is the absence of a long-term management plan for Korean spent fuel, a problem the ROK shares with many nuclear power-generating countries, including the U.S.
  • The ROK has conflated these two issues by claiming that public acceptance of nuclear power in Korea depends on government and industry demonstrating that there is a technological solution for management of spent fuel. Strongly colored by experience in the U.S., many U.S experts say they believe that this position is a cover for Korea’s R&D sector’s interest. (“Pyroprocessing is the answer. What is the question?”)
  • Since 1997, when ROK scientists began openly advocating pyroprocessing as the solution to build down the ROK’s spent fuel inventory, they have been walking back expectations about when this technology can be deployed. Pyroprocessing will not likely have any impact on the ROK’s spent fuel volume for perhaps two decades or more.
  • Likewise driven by unique U.S. attitudes, many U.S. experts are insensitive to the official ROK view that a once-through fuel cycle is ultimately unsustainable. Korean R&D officials–like many of their counterparts in France, Japan, Russia, India, and China–favor a “closed” fuel cycle based on reprocessing/pyroprocessing and fast reactors.
  • Debate over whether the ROK should have the freedom to pyroprocess is ultimately not about whether a pyroprocessing system is safeguardable or whether the ROK will divert nuclear material for a clandestine nuclear program. It is about whether the U.S. has confidence that the ROK will stay in the NPT and not obtain a capability to produce nuclear weapons in a short period of time.
  • Given time constraints, without resolution of the above differences the most likely outcome may be an agreement to extend the terms of the existing bilateral agreement for a limited period to afford negotiators more time to come up with a long-term agreement. In the meantime, bilateral cooperation on pyroprocessing-related R&D in the U.S. can go forward under a ten-year joint fuel cycle study that the U.S. and the ROK agreed to in 2011.

I have since heard the view that because the DPRK has warned that it plans to conduct further nuclear weapons tests, the ROK and the U.S. should not extend the current agreement for a limited period but instead conclude a new long-term agreement as soon as possible (implying that either the U.S. or ROK position on programmatic approval must prevail). Continued DPRK testing–presumably of uranium-fueled explosive devices–will make it more difficult for the ROK and the U.S. to reach an agreement, since pressure from conservative ROK politicians to leave the NPT or develop a nuclear weapons capability will only increase.


  1. SQ (History)

    The reaction to the third test at the Seoul Grand Hyatt might usefully be distinguished from the reaction to the third test in South Korea. Did the opinion trend really shift that much?

    And even within the confines of the Grand Hyatt, how much was really new? Chung Mong-joon went on the record in favor of South Korean nuclear weapons in June 2012. By then, he’d already been talking about the return of U.S. nuclear weapons for some time.

    What is more, notwithstanding his seniority in the National Assembly, he’s not a top figure on the political scene. What he says is more designed to get a rise out of Beijing and Washington than anything else. Let’s recall: the President of the Republic is Ms. Park Geun-hye.

    So, as glad as I am that the New York Times has deigned to take notice of a simmering trend in South Korean opinion, and to report on the message that Dr. Chung wishes to transmit, we should really think of this as the dawning of the newspaper’s awareness of a long-standing reality, not the emergence of a new one.