Senior U.S. officials are signaling that nonproliferation concerns will be prioritized over economic issues in talks with South Korea for a new atomic trade deal.
South Korea and the United States are in the middle of negotiating a replacement accord for their 1974 bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement that -- after being renewed for two years this week by Congress, is set to expire in 2016. The thorniest issue in the trade talks is whether South Korea will be permitted access to sensitive reprocessing and uranium enrichment technologies, which can be used both to produce new reactor fuel and warhead-suitable materials, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, testified at a Thursday Senate committee hearing that in trade talks with South Korea, "we continue to focus not on the political, not on the economic but on a consistent nonproliferation policy, what best strengthens the global nonproliferation regime.
"That remains our consistent guiding star," said Countryman, who is heading up the U.S. side of talks with Seoul.
The Obama administration is concerned that allowing South Korea access to nuclear weapon-relevant technologies will undermine its nonproliferation position in bilateral atomic trade talks with other nations. A nuclear accord finalized with Vietnam last year did not include an ironclad promise from Hanoi to never pursue enrichment or reprocessing capabilities.
The U.S. State and Energy Departments have adopted a "flexible" policy on whether to make other countries in any new bilateral nuclear trade deals promise to forsake weapon-relevant technologies.
Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman told the Senate Hearing that "we have always sought to minimize enrichment and reprocessing" in trade negotiations.
Countryman said the Vietnam deal would not serve as a template in negotiations with Seoul.
"I don't quite agree that the Vietnam agreement has a precedential value for the R.O.K. agreement," Countryman said. "We're already far along in our discussions and on kind of a different plane of discussion."
The next round of nuclear trade talks between the two longtime allies is slated for April.