A Nuclear South Korea?

By Lee Byong-chul

South Korean officials have recently realized that the United States is likely to try to forbid them from enriching uranium and expanding their country’s missile range, rather than leave these issues on the diplomatic back burner. Indeed, recent discreet talks, in which the US has disregarded South Korean efforts to supplement the controversial US-South Korea Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which expires in March 2014, suggest that there are reasons to be deeply worried about the alliance’s future.

American negotiators — the reluctant midwives of South Korea’s increasing responsibility in the field of atomic energy — remain steadfast in their opposition to South Korea’s drive for improved defensive capabilities and a more advanced energy policy, despite the potential strategic benefits. But American nonproliferation experts do not anticipate progress on South Korea’s efforts to win support for its preferred policies until the US gains more leverage.

Such a stalemate is not new. Nuclear talks between the two countries have often been characterized by poor communication and a lack of understanding. While South Korean officials rarely say in public what they really think, it is widely believed that US policymakers have little motivation to reconcile with South Korea’s government right now — they would prefer to stifle South Korea’s increasingly loud demands.

In the US-South Korea relationship’s heyday, American politicians considered the country an «extended arm of America.» Such condescension may have been defensible when South Korea’s military dictatorship needed America’s political protection and security guarantee, but now the country is a beacon of democracy in East Asia. So, while South Koreans understand the need for compromise and cooperation, they believe that the time is right for a more balanced partnership.

This belief does not imply South Korean cynicism about nonproliferation. Rather, it reflects concern about a nuclear North Korea, compounded by anxiety over the recent US-Japan missile-defense accord. Given that the US and South Korea have the same assessment of the intelligence regarding North Korea’s nuclear progress, not to mention South Korea’s vulnerability, their failure to reach a practical agreement is troubling.

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo warned an American official in 2010 that revising the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement could soon become a «defining issue» in South Korea-US relations, and that it was already attracting «significant amounts of negative press attention.» Given South Korea’s status as one of the world’s top five nuclear-power producers, Chun argued, the South Korean public would not tolerate the perception that Japan was receiving preferential treatment.

Indeed, right-wing leaders like Representative Chung Mong-joon of the governing Saenuri Party have been vocal in expressing their doubts about South Korea’s current denuclearization policy, suggesting that a nuclear weapons program could prevent a second war on the peninsula. The conservatives seem to believe that American nuclear protection for South Korea is a thing of the past.

Despite their hawkish approach to North Korea’s nuclear threats, South Korean officials know that uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing remains only a distant possibility. As a result, they are approaching negotiations skeptically, rather than emphasizing the sense of mutual obligation that should characterize the alliance.

But their pessimism is hardly groundless, given that the United Arab Emirates has already signed a similar agreement with the US declaring that it would not produce nuclear fuel. Indeed, South Korean negotiators appear convinced that they will not be able to make any headway with the US on the issue. (To be sure, this failure may not matter much, given South Korean scientists’ past declaration that they will not contribute to any nuclear program that could be used for military purposes.)

The US-South Korea debate over nuclear weapons should show both sides that their 59-year-old alliance urgently needs to be updated. Together, the allies can improve global prospects for nuclear nonproliferation, but only if they hammer out a grand bargain that accounts for South Korea’s current — and future — security concerns.


Lee Byong-chul is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, Seoul, South Korea.
Project Syndicate