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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Lapse of U.S.-South Korea Pact Mulled
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Daniel Horner

With talks on renewal of a U.S.-South Korean agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation still stalled, observers are raising the possibility that the pact could lapse.

The 1974 agreement expires next year, but because of the congressional review process required under U.S. law, analysts say the U.S. and South Korean governments would need to conclude their negotiations in the next several months. The two sides are at an impasse over Seoul’s long-term plans for enriching uranium and treating spent fuel.

South Korea is developing a spent fuel treatment process known as pyroprocessing, which it says is more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing. The United States has publicly disagreed with that assessment. In the most strongly worded instance, a State Department official cited the Energy Department as saying that “pyroprocessing is reprocessing. Period. Full stop.” (See ACT, April 2011.)

Pyroprocessing has long been a stumbling block between the two countries; the enrichment issue has emerged more recently.

Last year, some observers said they hoped to see progress after the U.S. elections in November and the South Korean elections in December. But there appears to be no indication of that.

A recent development that may further complicate the process of putting a new agreement in place is the support that some South Koreans are expressing for obtaining nuclear weapons, apparently spurred by North Korea’s Feb. 12 nuclear test. (See ACT, March 2013.) At a March 13 event at the Korea Economic Institute of America, Fred McGoldrick, a consultant and former State Department official whose responsibilities included negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements, and Duyeon Kim of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation said such a move is not a sensible or realistic option for South Korea. Nevertheless, McGoldrick said, the South Korean calls for a nuclear weapon are “not going to help” when the cooperation agreement is submitted to Congress.

At the March 13 event, McGoldrick and Kim presented a paper in which they said that a “lengthy” lapse in the agreement “could have adverse economic and political consequences,” such as a South Korean loss of confidence in the United States as a “reliable supplier.” On the other hand, they said that “the economic consequences of a short-term lapse are not likely to be significant.”

At the event, McGoldrick recalled that the U.S. agreement with the European Atomic Energy Community lapsed for “a few months” in 1995 “and the world did not end.”

The McGoldrick-Kim paper lays out several options that South Korea and the United States could pursue if they do not resolve their differences in the next several months.

Striking a similar note, a Congressional Research Service report completed in late January said that reconciling the “strongly differing views” between the two countries would be “challenging.” That report also provided a list of possible interim measures.

The U.S.-South Korean talks are taking place against the backdrop of a long-running policy review within the U.S. government of the terms it will require in agreements with its potential nuclear trading partners. The key question in the review is how hard Washington should press these countries to forswear enrichment and reprocessing activities.

Some nonproliferation advocates on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have argued that the United States should require those countries to renounce enrichment and reprocessing, as the United Arab Emirates did in its 2009 cooperation agreement. In August 2010, a State Department spokesman referred to that agreement and the policy it embodied as the “gold standard.”

According to several sources, however, the policy review is not holding up the talks with South Korea because the United States would not ask Seoul to accept whatever restrictions the policy may require.

A slide that McGoldrick and Kim presented at the March 13 event summarized the policy discussions by saying, “U.S. administration position unclear on gold standard, but will not require of [South Korea].”

In a subsequent e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today, McGoldrick said the policy likely would call for Washington to ask prospective nuclear cooperation partners to agree not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing programs. If they refused, the United States would decide whether to proceed with the negotiations, he said.

The agreements with China and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), like the one with South Korea, would not be subject to that policy, he said. In separate interviews in recent weeks, two nuclear industry officials gave similar accounts of the evolving policy.

In a brief March 13 interview, a U.S. official familiar with the issue declined to provide details of the policy review, but appeared to confirm that the United States would not ask South Korea to give up enrichment and reprocessing. “Everyone understands the gold standard is a nonstarter” in the case of South Korea, he said.