Current talks between Korea and the United States on a bilateral nuclear accord, if mishandled, have the potential of seriously damaging the Korea-U.S. defense alliance, a senior Washington policy analyst said.
Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a nonprofit that works to advance understanding and cooperation between the U.S. and Asian nations, said he was seriously concerned the Korea-U.S. alliance would be undermined if negotiations over their civilian nuclear cooperation agreement were mishandled.
“My biggest concern for 2013 is negotiations over this cooperation agreement, because (they have) the potential, if mishandled, to become very damaging in terms of our alliance with South Korea,” Flake said on the sidelines of a breakfast meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul on Jan. 9.
Flake was in Korea to raise funds for a Mansfield Foundation scholar-policymaker program. He returned to the U.S. on Jan. 11.
“If (negotiations are) couched in South Korea as a question of nuclear sovereignty and American respect for South Korea, and America letting South Korea do what the Japanese do, and American trust in South Korea, then that is really bad, because the Americans come across as looking really bad, as though they do not respect or trust South Korea,” he said.
Washington and Seoul are currently negotiating the renewal of the 1974 civilian atomic energy cooperation agreement, which expires in March 2014.
The main sticking point between the two countries is over fuel reprocessing and uranium enrichment. The U.S. sees the issue in the context of global nuclear non-proliferation and the U.S. Atomic Energy Act. Section 123 of that law requires guarantees that countries that the U.S. shares nuclear technology with meet stringent nonproliferation criteria.
Ironically, these delicate negotiations and their potential to severely damage the defense alliance come the year the two nations celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korea-U.S. mutual defense alliance.
Korea insists it needs reprocessing to secure vital energy and for it to be a competitive exporter of nuclear power. Korea is the fifth largest generator of nuclear power in the world, getting about 30 percent of all its electricity from its 23 reactors. It plans to build 11 more reactors to generate 60 percent of its electricity from nuclear by 2030.
Korea aims to export 80 reactors by 2030 as well.
For Korea, another big deal is securing adequate nuclear waste storage, which is already near capacity at some 10,000 tons of nuclear waste at plant sites dotted around the country. Some on the Korean side estimate these storage facilities will be full by 2016, adding that Korea therefore has little choice but reprocessing.
Former deputy foreign minister Chun Yung-woo warned former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens as early as February 2010 that revising the civilian nuclear accord could become a “defining issue” in Korea-U.S. relations, and “was already drawing significant amounts of negative press attention and had to be handled skillfully,” according to a secret U.S. embassy cable released by Wikileaks in September 2011.
Stevens noted in the cable that Chun’s warning was “an unusually strong presentation from an able and experienced diplomat with strong affinity for the U.S.,” adding that she believed Koreans and President Lee Myung-bak “are extremely proud of having recently won a nuclear reactor contract for the United Arab Emirates and view the nuclear industry as both a source of national pride and a significant contributor to the economy.”
Now time for more talks is running out. Given the U.S. Congressional calendar, an agreement would realistically need to be submitted in the Capitol by June.
“My real hope is that we will get some further compromise where we will have some type of expanded joint U.S.-Korea. research into future technologies, but I cannot imagine any scenario where the U.S. just says, ‘Okay, full reprocessing,’” Flake said.
Some high level officials on the Korea side are just as categorical on the issue of reprocessing.
Choi Kyung-hwan, a National Assembly representative with the conservative Saenuri Party and a former minister of Knowledge Economy, who is also a top surrogate of Park Geun-hye, is a vocal advocate of what he calls “peaceful nuclear sovereignty.”
What role he will play in the Park administration remains to be seen, as is whether Park will approach the issue of reprocessing as a question of “nuclear sovereignty.”
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com