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U.S. Lawmaker Skeptical of Two-Year Deadline for S. Korea Atomic Trade Talks
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. lawmaker on Thursday pushed back against a State Department forecast that two years should be enough time for it to wrap up talks with South Korea aimed at renewing a bilateral nuclear trade agreement that would replace one that is set to expire.
Negotiations reportedly have gotten hung up on the thorny question of whether South Korea should have the right to undertake sensitive nuclear weapon-relevant activities in its civilian atomic power program.
Seoul has sought permission -- thus far in vain -- to use U.S. technology to enrich uranium and reprocess spent reactor fuel rods. The two allies agreed this spring to extend for two years the current nuclear trade agreement that was to have expired in March 2014.
Washington is wary about granting its longtime East Asian ally rights to domestic enrichment and reprocessing due to nonproliferation concerns. These activities are viewed as highly sensitive because they could be used not only for producing civilian reactor fuel but also potentially for any illicit efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
“I remain convinced that this issue … is susceptible to the kind of solution that careful, patient, economic, technical analysis will allow us to achieve,” Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, told a House panel. “And that's exactly the purpose of the joint fuel-cycle study that we initiated two years ago that will run for 10 years, and that will serve as the basis for important joint decisions that we'll make about [the] future fuel cycle in Korea.”
Countryman, who has been deeply involved in the nuclear trade talks with Seoul, said he was “confident” that the two sides would be able to “get to a good agreement done within” the two-year timeframe.
Citing the eight years left in the bilateral study, Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) was skeptical that Seoul and Washington would be able to finish up trade negotiations in less than two years as they would not by that time have the full results of the study in hand.
“So you’ll be able to solve the problem when you get the study results in 2021, but you’re asking for a two-year extension,” Sherman said during a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on Asia and the Pacific and Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. He is ranking member on the latter panel.
It was not clear from Countryman’s response how the Obama administration anticipates juggling the timing issue.
The joint fuel cycle study includes a focus on pyroprocessing -- an experimental reprocessing technique whose South Korean proponents argue is more proliferation-resistant than traditional plutonium reprocessing.
Seoul has argued that domestic fuel-making capability is necessary for it to grow its atomic export industry and to reduce its domestic stockpiles of spent fuel rods.
The trade talks touch on delicate national pride issues, as well. The South points out that Japan under its own civilian atomic cooperation accord with the United States has been permitted for years to reprocess spent atomic waste.
“We’ve been negotiating for three years and I think it’s going well,” Countryman said before being interrupted by Sherman.
“You've been negotiating for three years and you need another two years," the lawmaker interjected. "There are very few times where an argument lasts five years and it's described as going well."
Testifying alongside Countryman, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Zumwalt declined to say whether he believes it would be a good idea for Seoul to be permitted enrichment and reprocessing rights.
“My opinion is that it is premature to decide every potential question,” he said in response to a question by Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas). "Rather, what we need to find is a process by which the U.S. and [South Korea] can together, as partners, make smart decisions about technologies on the basis of economics, technical feasibility and nonproliferation concerns."
One worry about giving Seoul consent for these activities is that it could undermine efforts to persuade North Korea to permanently shut down its nuclear weapons program. Countryman said he did not feel comfortable predicting how North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un would react if South Korea began domestically enriching uranium or reprocessing fuel rods.
“I think we do try to take into account, to the extent possible … the predicted reaction from Pyongyang” on the outcome of U.S.-South Korea atomic cooperation talks, the assistant secretary said.
South Korea and the United States are anticipated to hold another round of nuclear trade talks in September.
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