U.S.-South Korea Agree to Punt on Nuclear Cooperation Agreement for Two Years

U.S.-South Korea Agree to Punt on Nuclear Cooperation Agreement for Two Years

President Obama during before a speech on U.S.-South Korea issues (Source:AP/Susan Walsh)

President Obama during before a speech on U.S.-South Korea issues (Source: AP)

When President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye sit down during a meeting early next month, one item will be missing from the table: a long-term renewed nuclear cooperation agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry aimed to hammer out a final long-term deal before the summit, but South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said today that the two parties agreed to delay expiration of the current deal by two years until 2016. According to South Korea, while there has been “some meaningful progress” on demonstrating their side’s position, negotiators will use this additional time to address “the complexity of details and technologies.”

As this blog has covered in the past, South Korean negotiators would like to secure new rights to enrichment and reprocessing of U.S.-origin material not granted in the expiring 1972 agreement, which sets rules for the export of U.S. nuclear technology and material. The Wall Street Journal writes:

South Korea has argued that it needs to be able to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel to provide a steady supply of nuclear fuel for its fleet of 23 nuclear reactors. It also says it needs the ability to reprocess the spent fuel in order to better store the waste, which it says it is running out of room to store.

The Obama administration and other critics have argued that since these technologies can manufacture fuel for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, a revised nuclear cooperation agreement with these new arrangements could set a poor precedent for future nuclear energy trade, provide a future pathway for a South Korean nuclear bomb, and harm the nonproliferation regime.

Reaction in the South Korean media has been negative towards the United States. In a recent editorial, the newspaper JoonAng Ilbo felt that “Washington does not seem to trust South Korea as much as it reiterates blood-tight relations with Korea are as important as a linchpin, since it does not agree to revising the pact.” The editorial doubted that an additional two years would yield a favorable agreement: “It is merely a makeshift move to avoid a dispute.”

In another editorial by the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, U.S. negotiator Robert J. Einhorn was referred to as a “nonproliferation Taliban” for his laser focus on the proliferation risks of reprocessing and enrichment technologies. The editorial contended that the breakdown of talks so close to the U.S.-South Korean alliance’s upcoming 60th anniversary was a slap in the face by the United States to its Korean ally.

Moving forward, the two nations will continue to “hold talks on a regular basis to intensify consultation,” according to a diplomatic source quoted in Chosun Ilbo. Since negotiations began in October 2010, there have been six rounds of talks. Seoul has indicated that another two rounds over the next two years should be sufficient to make their case.

President Park will be in Washington, DC for a summit with President Obama on May 7. She will also address a joint-session of the U.S. Congress on the following day. Be sure to follow the Rising Power Initiative’s “Nuclear Debates in Asia” project on Twitter @Westmyer and this blog as events develop for more news and analysis.