Korea Must Swallow Bitter Pill of Revised Nuke Pact

      April 23, 2015 13:19

      After more than four years of negotiations, Seoul and Washington agreed on a revision of the nuclear pact dating back to 1973 that prohibits Korea from enriching uranium or processing its own spent nuclear fuel rods. The original pact has long troubled Korea because it has a bundle of obstacles to developing and exporting nuclear technologies.

      Today, Korea is the world's fifth-largest nuclear energy producer and operates 23 reactors. At the crux of the talks was a way of properly reflecting that reality. The U.S. has insisted on what is known as "gold standard" for nuclear pacts signed in recent years with Taiwan and the UAE, which imposes a permanent ban on uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction.

      The time it took for the revised pact to be negotiated demonstrates just how far apart Seoul and Washington were on key issues. An agreement cannot reflect the views of just one side, so the U.S. reluctantly abandoned its insistence on the "gold standard." But neither did it grant Korea anything like full license to enrich uranium and reprocess the fuel rods that are filling storage almost to capacity.

      Korea wants to enrich uranium to obtain a stable supply of the precious commodity. But the revision only allows Korea to enrich uranium to a low-grade level of less than 20 percent, and even that still needs to undergo review by a bilateral committee.

      The U.S. also agreed to let Korea carry out research into a method called pyroprocessing, which does not produce weapons-grade plutonium. This is a positive development, but the technology is still in development and its success remains unclear.

      The chief victory for Korea is that it can now export nuclear materials and equipment to third country without seeking U.S. approval -- a major step for the country's burgeoning nuclear plant industry.

      The revised pact falls far short of guaranteeing Korea's nuclear sovereignty, but insisting on it could send the wrong message to the international community. Korea cannot risk becoming an international pariah simply to prove a point.

      The gain of the revised pact is that many obstacles were removed. But this is merely the first step. The next task is to bolster cooperation and trust with Washington on nuclear power generation and create the trust that is needed for Korea to carry out its own nuclear activities responsibly.

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