South Korea’s designs on producing atomic fuel recently scotched a 2014 trade deal with the United States, but could yet have new ramifications: Potentially shattering a twenty-one-year-old pledge Seoul made to never process sensitive nuclear materials, according to issue experts.
“By dint of the Joint Declaration of 1992, South Korea has said it will not possess enrichment or reprocessing facilities on its peninsula,” Thomas Moore, deputy director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a recent panel discussion.
South Korea issued the declaration along with North Korea, which has since set up plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities in breach of the bilateral statement. Since 2006, Pyongyang also has gone on to test-detonate nuclear devices on three separate occasions, most recently in February.
Seoul has not publicly said it wants a nuclear arsenal of its own, though some South Korean lawmakers and pundits have called for such a capability to offset Pyongyang. Any such decision would require the South to take the dramatic step of withdrawing from the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the North has already done.
To date, South Korea has only asserted an interest in “pyroprocessing” of U.S.-origin nuclear materials as part of its bid to become a global atomic energy industry competitor in providing services across the entire fuel cycle. Its envoys have portrayed the process as proliferation-resistant.
Washington insists, though, that pyroprocessing is a form of plutonium reprocessing, a sensitive activity that could either produce reactor fuel or potentially lead to building a nuclear weapon. U.S. diplomats thus do not support its use by Seoul. Still, the United States has agreed to jointly study the matter with South Korea over the next decade.
More recently, the Obama administration refused to grant Seoul’s wish for U.S. advance consent for enrichment and reprocessing activities in a 2014 renewal of their bilateral trade pact. The two nations instead announced they will pursue a simple, two-year extension of their 1974 accord -- which does not allow for sensitive fuel-making activities -- and continue trying to resolve deadlocked negotiations over the wording of a replacement agreement.
Nonproliferation experts have commended the Obama team for withholding consent to enrich or reprocess, but some worry that kicking the can down the road could allow South Korea to chip away at U.S. resolve.
Other nations have gone in the opposite direction -- most notably the United Arab Emirates, which in 2009 agreed to incorporate into its bilateral nuclear trade pact with the United States a pledge not to enrich or reprocess on its territory. A State Department spokesman later termed the UAE model a “gold standard” for trade in nuclear technology.
Taiwan appears poised to offer a similar pledge in its own 2014 atomic cooperation renewal accord with Washington.
South Korean officials reportedly have shunned the idea of making any such promise in their renewal agreement.
Moore turned heads earlier this month, though, in saying that South Korea is already a gold-standard nation much like the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to issuing the 1992 declaration, stating that “South and North Korea shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities,” Seoul “has an Additional Protocol with the IAEA and a full-scope safeguards agreement,” the former Republican Senate staff aide said at the May 17 CSIS event. “By any measure, South Korea is already a gold-standard state.”
In a Wednesday interview, Moore said recent protests by Seoul that Washington has given preferential treatment to Japan and Europe in allowing fuel-making with U.S.-origin material do not hold sway in this context.
“They signed up to the Joint Declaration,” he said. “We didn’t make them.”
Officials at the South Korean Embassy in Washington declined comment.
“It puts South Korea in between the gold standard and a hard place,” said one congressional source. “South Koreans haven’t renounced the declaration. U.S. lawmakers certainly wouldn’t want them to. So the South Koreans can’t refute the substance of Mr. Moore’s point.”
The Capitol Hill source spoke on condition of not being named, lacking authorization to be quoted publicly.
One regional expert said South Korea has the capacity to back off of the 1992 declaration if it so chooses. The statement with North Korea “doesn’t have the force of international law,” said Victor Cha, who directs Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “It’s a political agreement between the two Koreas. It was supported but never formally sanctioned by the United States” and Russia, he said.
Cha noted in a Wednesday interview that South Korea arguably violated the declaration already by allowing its scientists to experiment with plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment in past decades. Moreover, he said, South Korean officials might contend that the joint statement “is now defunct because the North has already violated it.”
Nonproliferation expert Miles Pomper said last fall that even though North Korea flouted the 1992 ban, “South Korea and the other members of the six-party talks with Pyongyang still consider [it] in legal force.”
“We shouldn’t answer North Korean noncompliance by allowing South Korea to become noncompliant,” Moore told Global Security Newswire.
Cha was quick to note that, like Moore and Pomper, he does not support a move by South Korea to domestically produce nuclear fuel.
“They don’t need to have enrichment on their territory,” Cha said. South Korean leaders want to reserve the right to become a global nuclear supplier, but they refuse to “talk about what responsibilities they’re willing to take in nonproliferation,” he said.
“As long as South Korea remains committed to the eventual implementation of the denuclearization agreement -- and South Korean officials have consistently insisted that they are -- South Korea cannot possess national fuel cycle facilities on its territory,” Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told GSN this week.
In an article published last September by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he said it was the South Korean desire to enrich uranium -- rather than pyroprocess plutonium -- that was derailing talks on a renewed bilateral agreement with the United States. Seoul officials have cited their desire to assure domestic fuel supply as well as offer a source of reactor fuel for sales abroad.
Despite decades of assured fuel for South Korea and a decrease in global demand for enriched uranium, if Seoul were intent on involvement in this part of the fuel cycle it could pursue a joint effort offshore, Pomper said.
“South Korea's nuclear utility” could be encouraged “to take a substantial ownership stake in Areva's planned enrichment facility in Idaho, a Urenco facility operating in New Mexico, or a U.S. Enrichment Corporation plant under development in Ohio,” he wrote, noting that the Ohio effort particularly could use a cash infusion.
These or other similar global investment efforts “would allow South Korea to enjoy the benefits of further assured fuel supply while allowing the United States to retain control of the enrichment technology,” according to Pomper.