Stephen M. Walt

What’s behind the U.S-South Korea nuclear flap

Today’s New York Times has an interesting article on a diplomatic dispute between the United States and South Korea, arising from South Korea’s desire to begin reprocessing some of the spent fuel from its large nuclear power program. South Korea gets about forty percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and is reportedly running ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Today's New York Times has an interesting article on a diplomatic dispute between the United States and South Korea, arising from South Korea's desire to begin reprocessing some of the spent fuel from its large nuclear power program. South Korea gets about forty percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and is reportedly running out of space to store the spent fuel. It is barred from reprocessing by a 1974 agreement with the United States, and the Koreans are now pushing for a revision when the treaty expires in 2014.

U.S. officials oppose this step, fearing it will set a precedent for other states and could make it harder to push North Korea to give up its own nuclear program. (The problem with reprocessing spent fuel is that it yields plutonium, which can be used to make a nuclear bomb). There are also lingering concerns about South Korea's intentions, given that the country flirted with getting nuclear weapons back in the 1970s.

Three quick thoughts. First, as the Times article makes clear, critics who warned that the lax U.S.-India nuclear deal negotiated by the Bush administration would come back to haunt us should be feeling vindicated, as South Korea has rightly complained about the obvious double-standard here. South Korea is a long-time U.S. ally and an NPT signatory, while India is a nuclear weapons state that has yet to sign the NPT). Yet the Indians got advance U.S. consent for reprocessing in its nuclear deal with the United States, while South Korea is getting stiffed. 

Today’s New York Times has an interesting article on a diplomatic dispute between the United States and South Korea, arising from South Korea’s desire to begin reprocessing some of the spent fuel from its large nuclear power program. South Korea gets about forty percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and is reportedly running out of space to store the spent fuel. It is barred from reprocessing by a 1974 agreement with the United States, and the Koreans are now pushing for a revision when the treaty expires in 2014.

U.S. officials oppose this step, fearing it will set a precedent for other states and could make it harder to push North Korea to give up its own nuclear program. (The problem with reprocessing spent fuel is that it yields plutonium, which can be used to make a nuclear bomb). There are also lingering concerns about South Korea’s intentions, given that the country flirted with getting nuclear weapons back in the 1970s.

Three quick thoughts. First, as the Times article makes clear, critics who warned that the lax U.S.-India nuclear deal negotiated by the Bush administration would come back to haunt us should be feeling vindicated, as South Korea has rightly complained about the obvious double-standard here. South Korea is a long-time U.S. ally and an NPT signatory, while India is a nuclear weapons state that has yet to sign the NPT). Yet the Indians got advance U.S. consent for reprocessing in its nuclear deal with the United States, while South Korea is getting stiffed. 

Second, the dispute also illustrates important aspect of intra-alliance bargaining, especially when nuclear weapons are involved.  The Times story quotes Cheon Seong-whun, a senior analyst at a government-run research institute, saying that "We will never build nuclear weapons as long as the United States keeps its alliance with us." Probably true, but notice that this is both a reassuring pledge and an implicit threat. What Mr. Cheon is saying — and I’m not criticizing him for it — is that South Korea doesn’t need a nuclear deterrent as long as it is under the United States continues to protect it. But one reason why South Korea might want to reprocess — and again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t — is so that they can go nuclear at some point in the future, should confidence in the U.S. commitment erode. And notice that the closer they are to an actual weapons capability, the more potential leverage they might have over the United States. 

Third, it’s hard not to be struck by the basic hypocrisy of the U.S. position, which it shares with other existing nuclear powers. Washington has no intention of giving up its own nuclear weapons stockpile or its access to all forms of nuclear technology. The recent  New START treaty notwithstanding, U.S. government still believes it needs thousands of nuclear weapons deployed or in reserve, even though the United States has the most powerful conventional military forces on the planet, has no great powers nearby, and faces zero-risk of a hostile invasion. Yet we don’t think a close ally like South Korea should be allowed to reprocess spent fuel, take any other measures that might under some circumstances move them closer to a nuclear capability of their own.

In my view, there’s nothing reprehensible or even surprising about this situation; it merely reminds us that no two states have the same interests and that hypocritical (or more politely, ‘inconsistent’) behavior is common-place in international politics. But the U.S. ability to persuade others not to flirt with their own nuclear capabilities might be a lot stronger if we didn’t place so much value on them ourselves.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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