South Korea Pushing U.S. to Allow Atomic Fuel Reprocessing

South Korea is expected in bilateral talks this week to prod the United States to allow it to reprocess used atomic fuel, a move Washington worries would further exacerbate the North Korean nuclear impasse (see GSN, April 5).

Seoul and Washington are renegotiating an atomic trade agreement that allows U.S. firms to export atomic material and technology to the South. The existing deal, scheduled to sunset in 2014, forbids the South from recycling spent nuclear material, Agence France-Presse reported.

South Korea is arguing it should be allowed to use a new pyroprocessing technique it says is more proliferation-resistant than the existing reprocessing technologies that can produce weapon-usable plutonium. The Obama administration is concerned that the technology's introduction into South Korea would upset both North Korea and Japan and hurt international efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapon-related technology.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said the three-day meeting that began on Tuesday would focus on negotiating the legal structure necessary to permit the two longtime allies to deepen their collaboration in nuclear power.

U.S. State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control Robert Einhorn and South Korean diplomat Park Ro-byug were expected to head up the talks.

"We will discuss the revision of the nuclear energy pact so that the agreement should put (the ties of the two countries in the field of nuclear energy cooperation) on an equal footing," the Yonhap News Agency reported Park to have said.

On Monday, Einhorn told reporters that Seoul and Washington were "working very cooperatively together" to prepare a new atomic trade pact (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Dec. 6).

However, the sides' thoughts on what the new trade deal should allow are actually very different, as is their thinking on the strategic ramifications of permitting pyroprocessing in the South, according to the New York Times.

"The United States opposes the spread of enrichment and reprocessing even to South Korea, because it wants to set an absolute standard to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation," Harvard University Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs fellow William Tobey said. "While Seoul does not pose such a threat, a hard-and-fast standard will be the strongest bulwark against weapons proliferation by other states."

Additionally, "any hope of curbing the North's nuclear weapons program must entail like restrictions on the South," he said.

South Korean opposition legislator Song Min-soon said the trade pact talks "will serve as an important test" of how Washington wishes to be viewed in South Korea. "If they pressure South Korea too much, it might spawn anti-American sentiment" and "calls for nuclear sovereignty," Song said.

The South would like to use pyroprocessing to recycle used material at its 21 atomic reactors to eliminate waste and produce additional reactor fuel for atomic energy production. Seoul also wishes to begin enriching uranium to low levels to produce reactor fuel. Uranium enrichment can be used to generate warhead-grade material and is thus banned under the present trade pact.

Park said the two sides were discussing "in what scope and in what methods" their differing agendas could be bridged.

Possibilities include constructing an enrichment facility in the South that would be managed multilaterally and transporting South Korea's used fuel to an outside nation to be recycled, experts said. These options leave unresolved what would happen to the plutonium that is produced from the reprocessing; Seoul would like to see it repatriated.

Washington, though, wants to continue to be able to hold up the South as an example for other nations to follow on producing nuclear power without relying on reprocessing or enrichment, Monterey Institute of International Studies senior researcher Miles Pomper said.

"South Korea would be better off to stay on the same path than follow the role model of North Korea," he said.

Some conservative voices in South Korea have urged for the country to develop its own nuclear deterrent to North Korea, though Seoul insists it has no intention of doing so.

A 1992 inter-Korean agreement required both the North and South to abstain from reprocessing and enrichment. While Pyongyang has violated the terms of the pact, Washington wants Seoul to continue to abide by the rules.

Seoul-based analyst Lee Byong-chul charged the Obama administration with "nonproliferation Orientalism."

"We must divorce the 1992 agreement," the Institute for Peace and Cooperation researcher said. "At the same time, so that the Americans won't have any doubt, we must declare that we will never marry a nuclear weapon" (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, Dec. 5).

December 6, 2011

South Korea is expected in bilateral talks this week to prod the United States to allow it to reprocess used atomic fuel, a move Washington worries would further exacerbate the North Korean nuclear impasse.