S Korea-US-nuclear accord

SEOUL, April 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will resume formal negotiations this month aimed at revising a bilateral civilian nuclear accord, a senior official said Wednesday, amid a lingering question on whether Washington will allow Seoul to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

Revising the civilian nuclear agreement, which expires next March, is a key pending bilateral agenda for President Park Geun-hye and the second-term administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Little progress has been made in bilateral talks since 2010 to revise the 1974 accord that bans South Korea from enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

"Chief negotiators from the two nations are in the midst of preparing to resume formal negotiations," the senior official at Seoul's foreign ministry said.

Asked when the talks would be reopened, the official replied, "within April."

Ambassador Park Ro-byug, South Korea's chief delegate to the talks, will soon visit Washington to reopen the negotiations, the official said on the condition of anonymity.

The official made the remarks hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was "very hopeful" that the two sides could resolve the issue before Park visits Washington in early May for a summit with Obama.

Speaking to reporters at a joint news conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Kerry said, "I am very hopeful, and I think the Foreign Minister shares this hope, that this can be resolved before the visit of President Park."

The remarks by Kerry spawned media speculation that Seoul and Washington could reach a deal on the issue ahead of Park's visit to the U.S.

But the official played this down, saying, "What I can clearly tell you is that no deadline is set for a deal and the remarks by Secretary Kerry seemed to literally express his hope."

For a revised accord to be approved by the U.S. Congress, both sides must conclude negotiations by June of this year, officials said.

Last week, Park asked for U.S. congressional support for South Korea to expand its "peaceful use" of atomic energy.

Park made the remark when she met with U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying she hopes the expiring nuclear accord between the two countries will be revised in an advanced way, according to spokeswoman Kim Haing.

South Korea, a major nuclear energy developer, wants the U.S. to allow it to adopt proliferation-resistant technology for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent atomic fuel from its 22 nuclear power plants, but Washington has been reluctant to do so.

In the face of growing nuclear waste stockpiles and its ambition to become a global power in the civilian nuclear industry, South Korea hopes to adopt the so-called pyroprocessing technology, which leaves separated plutonium, the main ingredient in making atomic bombs, mixed with other elements.

South Korea wants the U.S. to allow it to use the new technology because it has to deal with more than 10,000 tons of nuclear waste at storage facilities that are expected to reach capacity by 2016.

Some nonproliferation experts say pyroprocessing is not significantly different from reprocessing, and the plutonium could be quickly turned into weapons-grade material.

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