U.S.-South Korean Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement
February 19, 2013
This spring, the United States and South Korea will complete their negotiations to renew their peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement, first inked in the 1950s and last amended in 1974. The agreement is set to expire in March 2014 and must be sent to the U.S. Congress in the next few months for approval. This particular agreement has been politically controversial and may remain so down to the wire.
Q1: What do these types of agreements actually do?
A1: Many countries sign umbrella agreements to signal their intention to cooperate in certain technical areas. These agreements do not constitute contracts for actual goods or services but can be important to set parameters of behavior. This is especially true in the nuclear area.
For the United States, the Atomic Energy Act requires that significant nuclear supply be preceded by such a framework agreement. These have been nicknamed “123 Agreements” after the section of the Atomic Energy Act that requires them. Other countries have adopted this approach to nuclear cooperation, signing general agreements that precede actual contracts.
Because of the proliferation risks that nuclear technology poses, it is important to regulate supply. For example, it is important that U.S. technology and equipment is not retransferred out of a partner’s country to be misused in a military program. It is also important that U.S. nuclear material is not used by another country for a nuclear test or any nuclear explosive device.
Q2: Why is the South Korean agreement controversial?
A2: Much of the text is not controversial. Although the last U.S.-ROK 123 agreement predates the 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act, which amended the Atomic Energy Act to include significant nuclear nonproliferation requirements, many supplier states agree that suppliers need to keep closer tabs on what happens to the material and equipment provided under such an agreement.
There is one area that has been the focus of disagreement between U.S. and Korean negotiators: South Korea would like programmatic consent for enrichment and reprocessing of U.S.-origin material. However, South Korea does not now enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel. It has stated its desire to acquire enrichment to support its ambitious plans to export additional nuclear power plants around the world. And South Korean scientists seek to develop a reprocessing technology (called pyroprocessing) to support an advanced research program in fast reactors that would require recycled fuel.
As a matter of policy, the United States has granted such programmatic consent in the past only to countries that already have enrichment and reprocessing commercial capabilities with the aim of not encouraging additional countries to obtain such sensitive nuclear capabilities. Uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing can be used to make fuel for nuclear power and research reactors, or material for nuclear weapons.
South Korea does not now have either capability, although in the past it conducted activities in both areas that it did not declare to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). South Korea is non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and therefore has comprehensive safeguards on all its nuclear material. In addition, South Korea signed a joint declaration in 1992 with North Korea not to have enrichment or reprocessing facilities on the Korean peninsula because of their proliferation risk. Obviously, North Korea has violated that bilateral agreement.
Q3: Will the United States and South Korea overcome their differences in time so the agreement does not lapse?
A3: The new South Korean government under Ms. Park will enter office on February 25, 2013. It is likely that this agreement will be an early top priority. The U.S. and South Korean nuclear industries have significant business that requires the continuation of the peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement, including Westinghouse and KEPCO collaboration on South Korea’s sale of four reactors to the United Arab Emirates. A lapse of a few months would not be catastrophic, but both sides likely want to avoid that.
An agreement that meets all the requirements of Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act sits before Congress for 90 continuous days of session and enters into force if Congress does not disapprove it. This means that Congress must pass an actual law if it disagrees with any of the text in the agreement. This rarely happens, although sometimes Congress has given conditioned approval. In the case of India, the Hyde Act required approval by the Nuclear Suppliers Group before Congress would approve the U.S.-India 123 agreement and in the case of China, Congress passed a law that allowed entry into force only upon China’s meeting certain requirements, which took thirteen years.
Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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