Pyongyang's third nuclear test, conducted February 12, may well have serious long-term implications for regional and international security. Right now, however, the acute tension on the Korean peninsula is threatening critical negotiations on peaceful nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea. If negotiators don't close on a new agreement by June -- in time for Congress to consider it -- billions of dollars worth of nuclear energy projects in the United States, Korea, and elsewhere may soon halt.

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
More >

Under an existing nuclear agreement inked 40 years ago, South Korea worked with U.S. companies and government agencies to build infrastructure that now generates 30 percent of the country's electricity with fission energy. Korean firms are now partnering with American vendors at home, in the United States, and in China, and they have won multi-billion dollar contracts to export nuclear power plants based on U.S. technology. Renewing the deal, which expires in March 2014, sounds like a foregone conclusion.

It isn't. Two years of negotiations have not produced an agreement. The sticking point is South Korea's demand that it be permitted to extract the uranium and plutonium stored in thousands of tons of spent reactor fuel -- fuel that originally came from the United States. Seoul argues that reprocessing the used fuel would reduce the stockpile at its power plants and produce new fuel. Beyond that, Seoul wants to secure public acceptance for building more reactors by demonstrating that it has a solution to deal with nuclear waste.

The United States, however, discourages countries from obtaining capabilities to enrich uranium and separate plutonium from spent fuel because that technology also allows countries to produce the explosive core of a nuclear weapon. So ultimately Washington's reluctance to let South Korea reprocess goes to the heart of U.S. confidence in whether Seoul will remain in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Since the North's most recent test, the crossroads Washington is at looks like this: It can accommodate a staunch ally at a critical moment, or refuse to give Seoul a free hand, consistent with global U.S. policy.

Lifting the Veil

Beginning with the February 12 test, Pyongyang has been escalating its threats against the South, announcing it won't honor the 60-year-old Korean War armistice and airing battle plans for a confrontation with South Korean forces. In response, press reports have showcased research demonstrating that most South Koreans favor Seoul having nuclear weapons, and they have cited South Korean politicians who appear to support a nuclear weapons "option" for the country.

So will Seoul reach for nuclear weapons in response to fresh North Korean threats? Currently, and for an indefinite period that transcends the negotiation of a new nuclear agreement, that is highly unlikely.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a South Korean think tank, announced a week after the test that two-thirds of Koreans polled between February 13 and 15 "supported a domestic nuclear weapons program." Some news media interpreted this as a signal that public opinion might pressure the government to develop nuclear weapons, but in fact Asan said the result of the poll was "virtually unchanged" from a year before. The press largely ignored results showing that the percentage of Koreans who believed that North-South relations were the "most salient" issue facing the country -- between 8 percent and 15 percent -- paled in comparison to the 40 percent most worried about job creation. According to Asan researchers, when media interest in North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests wanes, public concern drops.

A trickle of personalities in South Korea has gone on record since the North Korean test saying that they favor considering a nuclear weapons option. The most frequently-cited politician is Chung Moon Joon, a maverick legislator in the National Assembly who for several years has urged that the United States redeploy theater nuclear weapons on South Korean territory. For decades, the topic of an independent South Korean nuclear capability was a taboo; Chung's lifting of this veil in recent years was tailored to shock Beijing and Washington, and his message fills a niche in the conservative wing of Korean politics. But by no means are Chung's views mainstream.

What's more, in recent decades neither the South Korean government nor research organizations close to it have seriously analyzed what acquiring nuclear weapons would mean for the country.

The reason they have not done so is evident. Increasingly, South Korea has thrown its weight behind a policy of economic development based on international cooperation with trading partners, participation in international organizations and compacts, a security alliance with the United States, deployment of nuclear power technology, and -- especially since the late 1990s -- establishment of democratic institutions and a civil society. Today, most or all of these developments stand in the way of South Korean leaders pursuing nuclear weapons.

Consider the country's growing reliance on nuclear power. Four decades ago, South Korea turned to the atom when the cost of imported oil began to threaten the growing economy's balance of payments. Since the 1970s, South Korea has built and is now operating two dozen power reactors generating nearly a third of the country's electricity. South Korea is building more reactors, and it has installations for nuclear research, medicine, engineering, equipment manufacture, waste treatment, disposal, and fuel fabrication. Leaving aside the considerable investment in human capital associated with this effort, South Korea's peaceful nuclear energy assets might be worth several hundred billion dollars.

Should South Korea reach for nuclear arms, its nuclear program and its energy security would be at risk. Reactors would run out of fuel, and access to imported substitute fossil fuels might be embargoed. It is unclear whether the United States would sustain its security guarantee to South Korea. Outside the NPT, South Korea might be far more vulnerable to attack from the North, and its relations with China, Japan, and Russia might be frozen. On the other hand, with increasing wealth, perhaps South Korea might conclude in a crisis it could afford to take such risks.

The Longer Term -- and Park's U.S. Visit

The United States is not worried that, if it allows South Korea to reprocess its spent fuel, Seoul will start working on a bomb. But it is concerned that other countries would follow in South Korea's footsteps, that tensions with North Korea would increase, and that the threshold which has deterred Korean politicians from considering development of nuclear weapons might be lowered.

Provocative statements by some Korean commentators, and instinctive public support in favor of nuclear weapons registered by pollsters, express anxiety and vulnerability to North Korea's threat, not a strategy. In theory, that could change should North Korea acquire greater destructive capabilities and South Korean leaders lose confidence in U.S. promises to defend it from such capabilities. Long before reaching that point, however, South Korea's leaders would likely seek stronger defense commitments from the United States. Seoul and Washington would also both press China to weigh in with Pyongyang.

In early May, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye will arrive in Washington for her first state visit. Before that, the job of finishing the negotiation on the nuclear agreement will be taken over by the senior political level in both administrations. They will want to make a deal for Park to bring back to Korea. Details will be brushed aside. South Korea will argue that, because Washington's nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan gives Tokyo the right to separate the plutonium in its spent fuel, the United States should afford South Korea the same right.

But, when that agreement was signed, in 1988, the Asia-Pacific region was not bristling with hyper-nationalized territorial conflicts, North Korea was in the NPT and had no nuclear weapons, and the Cold War superpowers acted in consort as global nonproliferation enforcers. Today's world is very different, and the United States is disinclined to give the South the carte blanche approval it wants.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.