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By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, March 13 (Yonhap) -- As time is running out for South Korea and the United States to strike a deal on revising their nuclear energy cooperation, the two sides have no other ideal options, experts here said Wednesday.
Chances are high that the allies face a lapse of the agreement or temporary extension of the existing version, both of which carry considerable risks, according to former U.S. government official Fred McGoldrick.
"Given the strong differences of views between the ROK (South Korea) and the U.S. over enrichment and reprocessing, it will be a monumental challenge to reach agreement on a text and submit it to their respective legislatures for review and approval before the March 2014 expiration date," he said in a report for a Washington forum hosted by Korea Economic Institute of Korea.
He has long experience in nuclear nonproliferation and international nuclear policy at the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of State, where he negotiated non-military nuclear partnership agreements.
The South Korea-U.S. civil nuclear pact, signed in 1974, sets the legal guidelines and rules for exports of U.S. nuclear material and equipment to South Korea. It is set to expire in March 2014.
In renewing the agreement, South Korea hopes to leave the door open for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel, which are currently prohibited.
The U.S. is reluctant out of concern over a possible negative impact to its nonproliferation campaign and efforts to denuclearize North Korea, as well as the huge costs required to monitor the South's nuclear activities.
It is one of the most urgent and thorniest issues between the two sides. It is likely to be a main agenda item in the summit talks between South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, and President Barack Obama, expected to take place in Washington in early May.
The Park administration is expected to maintain a position similar to the Lee Myung-bak government on the issue.
"But it is unclear what exact conditions it will find acceptable. Thus, the change of administration may delay the negotiations," McGoldrick said in the report co-authored by Kim Du-yeon, senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Many agree that Seoul and Washington will have to reach a deal no later than June, given domestic procedures.
It remains uncertain the upcoming Park-Obama summit will produce a breakthrough.
McGoldrick and Kim said resolving differences over the reprocessing issue may prove far more difficult than the enrichment problem.
South Korea's demand for U.S. consent to enrich U.S.-supplied natural uranium has little practical effect, they pointed out.
"The U.S. is not a major producer or exporter of natural uranium and the international market has a fairly large number of low-cost uranium producers," they said.
South Korea's need for spent fuel management is more urgent, as its on-site nuclear waste storage reaches saturation in 2016.
South Korea, the world's fifth-largest nuclear producer, has 23 reactors, which generate about 35 percent of the country's electricity. It plans to build an additional 16 reactors by 2030.
It has also signed a contract to export nuclear plants to the United Arab Emirates.
South Korea has proposed pyro-processing, an uncommercialized way to reuse spent fuel, claiming it offers little possibility for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. But many U.S. officials view it virtually as reprocessing.
If South Korea and the U.S. fail to reach a deal anytime soon, McGoldrick said, they have few options.
"The likelihood of a lapsed agreement currently appears greater than expected with both parties firm in their respective positions on enrichment and pyro-processing," the experts said. "A lengthy lapse could have adverse economic and political consequences."
The South Korean industry could lose confidence in the U.S. as a reliable supplier and turn to other partners, he warned.
Short-term extension of the existing agreement is also risky since it does not meet all the requirements of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which means difficulties for congressional approval, they added.
"None of those options are ideal," they said. "All have real costs and risks, but the two sides need to move quickly in deciding how they wish to work their way out of the political thicket, avoid the political and economic costs of failure, and come to a timely closure of a new peaceful nuclear trade pact."
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