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[Opinion] Dictating Nuclear Terms
Renegotiating the ROK-US nuclear agreement
Lee Byong-Chol (merrycow)     Print Article 
Published 2010-01-13 11:26 (KST)   
South Korea's unprecedented winning of a $20 billion contract with the United Arab Emirates to build nuclear reactors is fueling hopes of at least short-term economic development in the nuclear energy related industry.

The conservative South Korean government is still busy drumming up its successful bid, in spite of its domestic political troubles. The government deserves it, though.

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Suppose that the once poverty-stricken country like North Korea of today has emerged as one of the most competitive bidders in the global market for nuclear power reactors, long after South Korea started operating its first nuclear power reactor in 1978 with the assistance of the United States.

That said, it would not have been possible to see South Korea "standing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S., Japan, France and Russia" without the full support of nuclear related technologies and knowledge from the U.S. at the time. South Korea is currently operating 20 nuclear power reactors, although it imports key components and core technologies such as Reactor Coolant Pumps and Man Machine Interface Systems.

That is not to say South Korea is without critical issues in the nuclear power industry, primarily waste disposal. Many nuclear experts in Seoul warn that if South Korea does not acquire additional places to store waste (or some technical ways to limit its danger), storage facilities will reach capacity around 2016. This creates a dangerous situation: it threatens the safe operation of nuclear power plants and, eventually, leads to a national crisis due to the severe lack of electric power.

Today, South Korea's nuclear stations generate about 36 percent of the country's power.

What explains South Korea's willingness to depend on nuclear power when the storage of waste is so precarious? Given its small land mass and lack of natural energy resources, such as oil and gas, the government cannot help but to consider all options, including research into new ways to store nuclear waste.

In terms of economics, business, political systems, and culture South Korea is weaving a new landscape that is quite different from what most Americans might have seen through the prism of the old ramshackle South Korea that had no choice but to accept the U.S.-led pact in full, with no changes, when the country was a poor, developing one in the mid-60s.

A 'new version' of South Korea is the result of a series of dynamic trends that have been progressing over the last 50 years, trends that have so far created a unique atmosphere of unprecedented economic and political prosperity. Obviously, South Korea's nuclear technologies have now outpaced the client-patron relations in the past.

However, the ROK-U.S. nuclear energy agreement is still in the client-patron era. Initially signed in November, 1972 and revised in May, 1974, the agreement is set to officially to expire in March, 2014.

Both countries have reportedly agreed to finish the new version of the pact in 2012. Few details have emerged, but we are told that the U.S. is concerned about whether South Korea tries to possess nuclear weapons in some way in the wake of obtaining the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

Namely, America still appears unwilling to 'radically' fix the 38-year-old pact, despite the fact that Seoul clearly declared in the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that it "shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons."

Nevertheless, why doesn't the U.S. trust South Korea? Do Korea policy makers in Washington really suspect that South Koreans have the same mindset over the nuclear weapons as that of North Korean troublemakers?

I'm not saying that a new pact is not essential for curbing nuclear proliferation, because North Korea's foolhardy attempts to obtain nuclear weapons have strengthened the U.S. worries about the nuclear proliferation on the peninsula.

Part of the suspicious perceptions that some Washingtonians might keep in mind is based on the past one or two bad cases that were enough to invoke some doubts over the mishandling of sensitive nuclear materials. At that time, South Korea failed to report the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a timely manner, and this factor still involves the widely held sentiment that the U.S. cannot fully trust South Korea, at least from the perspective of nuclear nonproliferation. South Korea, thus, needs to change such tone in Washington.

The conventional wisdom, in the meantime, is that the U.S. can no longer act like a so-called 'Nuclear Gestapo' that attempts to define and dictate what is acceptable and what is not. A handful of critics of U.S.-led nuclear policy claim that America still relegates South Korea to a corner reserved for second-class country in terms of nuclear transparency. Figuratively speaking, it is at times necessary to take a wait and see attitude to see if a small tree will grow under the sun, rather than trying to uproot the tree every day to check out the growth. And South Koreans are quick to know that the whole South Korean economy will become undoubtedly bankrupt if it attempts to possess nuclear weapons.

The clueless North Korea is a prime example of government doing nothing for individuals, in return for nuclear ambitions only. Yet, Seoul, unlike Pyongyang proudly scoffing at president Obama's goal of "achieving a world without nuclear weapons," is on a completely different track aiming for the liberal democracy and the free market economy.

So far, the U.S. has, however, given no specifics about what South Korea wants. Both sides now appear circumspect. When a series of tough negotiations begin in earnest, both countries need to convince each other in a sincere and wise manner, instead of bickering over how to amend the agreement.

Seoul needs to persuade Washington that as a major nuclear energy exporter, South Korea has no choice but to develop nuclear energy related technologies while reassuring the U.S. government that it has no intention to develop any kind of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the U.S. should not rule out the possibility that the prior consent right given to Japan and Switzerland could be equally applied to South Korea, instead of demanding the South Korean nuclear doctrine or policy as they are, not as they want them to be.

The qualities and quantities of the alliance management between ROK-U.S. are already too critical to put the South Korean case on the back burner of the ready-made standard agreement being applied to the rest of the world, except for a few strategically crucial allies of America. In order to transform the nuclear energy debate framed in 1970s into that of the 21st century, there is no reason that the U.S. can't communicate better with South Korea, its major ally in Northeast Asia. So, South Korea urges the U.S. to reconsider its stubbornness.
©2010 OhmyNews

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