In a few weeks, South Korea’s newly-elected President, Park Geun-hye, will arrive in the United States on her first state visit. Between now and then, Washington and Seoul will be working on a diplomatic response to accompany their resolve not to blink should Kim Jong-un launch an attack, and they also want to wrap up two years of negotiations on a new bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation. John Kerry will soon be on the way to South Korea, and the ROK diplomat leading the nuclear cooperation talks, Ambassador Park Ro-byung, will soon come to Washington.

Beforehand–on Monday and Tuesday–we at the Carnegie Endowment will be putting on the 2013 version of the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. And at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, April 9, we’ll give the floor to Chung Mong-joon, a seven-year member of the Korean National Assembly and former Chairman of Korea’s Grand National Party.

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.
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I saw Chung Mong-joon in Seoul in February on occasion of the Asan 2013 Nuclear Forum, for which he served as Honorary Chairman. A couple days before, North Korea had carried out its third nuclear test. En route to Seoul for the conference, we learned that the agenda of the meeting would be changed to reflect the urgency of Pyongyang’s escalation of its nuclear threats.

Chung and Bob Gallucci opened the Asan Conference on February 19. The total absence of Gallucci’s usual light touch in his remarks set the tone of the conference and, following up, Chung rubbed it in for all who cared to listen: The U.S. must re-deploy theater nuclear weapons on South Korean territory “because the threat of a counter nuclear force is the only thing that will discourage North Korea from developing its nuclear arsenal.” Beyond that, he said, the U.S.-ROK alliance “has been an abject failure” leading some South Koreans to conclude that South Korea would never be able to negotiate at eye-level with North Korea unless it had its own nuclear deterrent.

So I have a few questions that I hope find answers during and around Chung Mong-joon’s appearance on Tuesday:

  • Who, exactly, really advocates South Korea having nuclear weapons?
  • Has the South Korean strategic community seriously explored what having nuclear weapons would mean for South Korea?
  • What would be South Korea’s path to obtaining nuclear weapons?
  • What would be the cost-benefit calculus?
  • Doesn’t the relatively nonplussed response of ROK citizens to the North’s recent escalation imply instead that they are not intimidated and therefore are not prepared to take the risks associated with reaching for nuclear weapons?

Then there’s the issue of the ongoing nuclear cooperation agreement negotiation.

The official South Korean view is that this negotiation has nothing to do with North Korea and with nuclear weapons. I’m not satisfied that’s true.

Both parties agree on nearly all of the text for a new agreement but there are serious differences over one major issue: South Korea wants the United States to give it carte blanche approval to pyroprocess spent fuel and enrich uranium covered by U.S. consent rights under the current agreement which expires next year.

The U.S. so far is not prepared to agree to this.

The more-or-less official reason for the U.S. position is threefold: 1.) The U.S. wants to discourage the spread of enrichment and reprocessing (including pyroprocessing) capabilities beyond countries which already are deploying them; 2.) enrichment and pyroprocessing by the ROK would be contrary to the 1992 agreement by both Korean states not to do that on their territories; and 3.) Reprocessing and enrichment in South Korea would exacerbate tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the region.

From Washington’s point of view, reason 1. looks straightforward: If the ROK is given programatic approval to reprocess and enrich, other states will be encouraged to follow suit.

Reason 2. is more of a problem–including for South Korea. Seoul’s 1992 no-enrichment and no-reprocessing pledge linked these sensitive nuclear technologies to concern about nuclear weapons proliferation. South Korean advocates can press their case for enrichment and reprocessing now because North Korea violated its pledge and is using sensitive fuel processing technology to make nuclear weapons.

Then there is reason 3: “Increased tension on the Korean peninsula and in the region.” That sounds like a State Department formula intended to cover any unpleasant development. What does it really mean? Does it include residual U.S. concern about the absoluteness of South Korea’s NPT commitment? A few people who will not speak for the record will express the view that it does. Others may disagree.

Carnegie’s Doug Paal will lead the discussion after Chung Mong-joon’s remarks on Tuesday morning. Perhaps we’ll get authoritative answers to these questions then and throughout the conference.

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.