Time for Leadership: South Korea and Nuclear Nonproliferation

By Kane, Chen; Lieggi, Stephanie C. et al. | Arms Control Today, March 2011 | Go to article overview
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Time for Leadership: South Korea and Nuclear Nonproliferation

Kane, Chen, Lieggi, Stephanie C., Pomper, Miles A., Arms Control Today

South Korea recently has emerged as a significant nuclear exporter. In December 2009, a South Korean-led consortium won a $20 billion deal to export four nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).1 South Korea has been in the running for other nuclear reactor deals as well, including with Lithuania and Turkey, and may find itself with the opportunity to operate Jordan's planned power reactors. Buoyed by these achievements, Seoul is aiming to capture 20 percent of the world market for nuclear reactors by 2030. 2

All of a sudden, the countries that have long dominated nuclear sales - Canada, France, Japan, Russia, and the United States - have had to reckon with a serious new competitor.

Seoul's growth as a nuclear exporter is not simply a tale for the business pages. How it carries out its new role matters because nuclear power is like no other industry; its chief materials and technologies can be used to make the world's deadliest weapons. The United States and countries in the region - China, japan, and North Korea in particular - follow events in South Korea carefully and try to shape its nuclear development. Moreover, nuclear technology is of specific concern when it is sold to volatile regions such as the Middle East - South Korea's key export market.

Additional no nprol iteration-related concerns, particularly in Washington, come from South Korea's efforts to develop pyroprocessing, a spent fuel treatment process that Seoul believes it needs in order to manage the increasing amount of nuclear waste coming from its reactors. South Korean officials assure the international community that pyroprocessing is not the same as traditional reprocessing and entails few proliferation risks. Many outside experts and policymakers, however, are concerned that the process would be difficult to safeguard and could allow diversion of sensitive nuclear materials.

In the past, South Korea has been a sometimes-reluctant follower and occasional violator of international nuclear nonproliferation norms and rules. More recently, Seoul has taken steps to upgrade its nonproliferation credentials and comply with relevant nonproliferation obligations. Still, if South Korea is to meet its goals as a nuclear exporter and successfully conclude a new nuclear Cooperation agreement with the United States, it will have to become a leader, rather than a follower, of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Mixed Nonproliferation Record

In 1968, South Korea signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPF), but concerns about its security environment in the 1970s led Seoul to consider a military nuclear option. In the early 1970s, South Korean President Park Chung-hee made the acquisition of a reprocessing capability to separate plutonium for nuclear weapons a top priority. After the United States threatened to withdraw its security guarantees if Seoul did not halt its weapons development plans, South Korea ratified the NPT in 1975 and adopted an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement.1

The announcement by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s that the United States intended to withdraw all ground troops from the Korean peninsula revived Park's interest in a nuclear weapons option. Seoul renewed its efforts to acquire a reprocessing capability from France, an effort thwarted by Carter's personal intervention and his nearly simultaneous decision not to withdraw U.S. forces from the peninsula.4

Soon after the Cold War ended, Seoul and Pyongyang in 1992 signed the "Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," whereby both Koreas agreed not to "possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities."5 The two sides also declared they "would not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons." It is widely agreed that North Korea's nuclear activities during the past decade, particularly its enrichment and reprocessing programs and nuclear tests, have been in clear violation of the 1992 agreement.

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Time for Leadership: South Korea and Nuclear Nonproliferation


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