On the occasion of Chung Mong-joon’s appearance at the 2013 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington last week, I doubt that Dr. Chung had scheduled audiences with either John Kerry or Yukiya Amano, but it would be a fair guess that both the U.S. Department of State and the IAEA paid very close attention to what MJ had to say on April 9.

These bits, which I excerpt from the transcript of his remarks, must have caught the attention of people in Washington who are negotiating with the ROK on nuclear cooperation right now, as well as those in Vienna who are responsible for verifying the ROK’s peaceful-use credentials under the IAEA Additional Protocol:

Facing an extraordinary threat to national security, South Korea may exercise the right to withdraw from the  NPT as stipulated in Article X of the treaty. South Korea would then match North Korea’s nuclear program step by step, while committing to stop if North Korea stops.

South Korea should be given this leeway as a law-abiding member of the global community who is threatened by a nuclear rogue state.

The alliance has failed to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Telling us not to consider any nuclear weapons option is tantamount to telling us to simply surrender.

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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During the coming week, the U.S. and the ROK will again attack the crux that since 2011 has bedeviled the negotiation of a new bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement: Seoul’s insistance that Washington provide it programmatic approval to enrich uranium and extract both plutonium and uranium from thousands of tons of spent fuel that, under the terms of the 1974 bilateral agreement that will expire next March, are defined as U.S.-origin and are therefore subject to U.S. consent. Until now, the U.S. Department of State has been unwilling to say yes to South Korea’s request.

MJ’s remarks last week don’t have to change that state of affairs. After all, it is quite clear–as a number of people who objected that Carnegie gave MJ an audience during our conference kept telling me–that Dr. Chung’s views do not represent mainstream Korean thinking, that the government of Park Geun-hye has not associated itself with MJ’s opinions, and that, just before MJ arrived in Washington to give his statement, a delegation of  lawmakers from the ROK National Assembly, representing both government and opposition parties, told U.S. Congressional counterparts that they didn’t agree with MJ either. If that’s not enough, keep in mind that during the entire negotiation on the 123 agreement, the ROK government has kept to its script that the negotiation has nothing to do with North Korea and nothing to do with nuclear weapons.

The U.S.-ROK 123 Context

In the run-up to Park’s state visit to Washington next month, Bob Einhorn’s team at the State Department and a bevy of NSC staffers are now preparing for what looks like what might be an interagency-guided President-to-President decision on this matter. Over the last month or so, I have heard in some quarters that, to demonstrate solidarity with what Park’s political advisers are telling the White House is America’s most steadfast ally in the region, the U.S. at the most senior level might be prepared to accomodate Seoul on enrichment and reprocessing, swayed ultimately by the Korean argument that in 1988 Washington had made the same concession to Tokyo.

What I’ll call here the “nonproliferators” among U.S. officials weighing in on this don’t want to do that. If they hold sway, as they have during the last two years, what might they tell their Korean counterparts after they frame MJ’s words of wisdom? I could imagine they might prepare an argument that goes something like this:

You know that the U.S. Congress has to approve this agreement. It’s no secret that until now people have assumed that, especially given all the force of persuasion that Korea has brought to bear on Capitol Hill, the Congress would never stand in the way of a draft bilateral agreement that comes down from Park and Obama. But after MJ leaves Washington, you can also assume that the transcript of his remarks will be circulated to each and every Senator and Congressman up there. When they read that, they’ll never approve a 123 agreement that says in effect that the U.S. will give a green light to South Korea for enrichment and reprocessing [ENR] as long as there are significant voices out there urging South Korea to consider the “option” to match North Korea’s nuclear development. If they want to match Pyongyang, they will have to enrich uranium and separate plutonium outside of IAEA safeguards. So if you want an agreement that lets you enrich and reprocess, you’ll have to convince the Congress. You already know what a couple of senior people at State have told lawmakers about what conditions should be in any new 123 agreement we negotiate. Those views are certainly not U.S. policy, but that doesn’t mean Congressmen will ignore them.

In fact, of course, it’s more complicated than that. The ROK has argued that only a fraction of the spent fuel in Korea is subject to U.S. consent rights, and the Korea 123 negotiation is not intended to deny Seoul’s right to ENR under NPT Article IV.

But when state visits are on the horizon, high politics can get stratospheric, stuff gets simplified, and some U.S. lawmakers might get the notion that handing over the keys to all that nuclear material while people are thinking about a nuclear “option” might not be the best way to proceed. The ROK narrative, of course, is that MJ is a marginal figure and that the negotiation is all about South Korea’s civilian nuclear program.

The IAEA Context

IAEA DG Yukiya Amano (who led off the Carnegie conference on the morning of April 8) is, as is well known, not negotiating a 123 agreement with anyone just yet, he doesn’t have to worry about whether the U.S.-ROK mutual defense treaty holds, and he hasn’t seen pictures of a 30-something in a uniform pointing a swagger stick in the direction of Vienna followed by pictures of ballistic missiles being fired off to land on the Hofburg.

Amano’s staffers might be interested in what MJ has to say nonetheless, because they’re busy implementing safeguards in the ROK under the State-Level Approach.

Since 2008, the IAEA, following verification of nuclear activities subject to the ROK’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) and Additional Protocol (AP), has annually provided South Korea a so-called “broader conclusion” which attests that “all nuclear materials remained in peaceful activities” during the preceding calendar year. The ROK has a broader conclusion under the most current Safeguards Implementation Report.

After the ROK signed the AP in 1999, it took eight years for the IAEA to get to a broader conclusion. That was in part because the IAEA had found that a tiny amount of plutonium had been generated by irradiating depleted uranium in a reactor and then extracted in a hot cell, and that a small amount of highly enriched uranium had been produced with a laser. It also took awhile for the IAEA to reconstruct the history of the ROK’s nuclear R&D program. That included secret activities authorized by President Park Chung-hee. These, if they had not been nipped in the bud by the U.S., might have gotten Seoul into a game of chicken with Washington over security guarantees sometime during the 1980s. There was also the little detail that Korean activities which were exposed under the AP as ex post facto violations of the ROK’s safeguards obligations involved materials that had been previously exempted from IAEA safeguards. The IAEA isn’t too happy when this happens. There were also some safeguards issues concerning plans by the ROK to move forward on pyroprocessing work in the early 2000s more quickly than the IAEA saw fit. On balance, the ROK during the last three decades has had a lot of nuclear R&D on its plate, and the IAEA has been challenged to keep track of it.

MJ took the floor at the Carnegie conference in the middle of a discussion between the IAEA and member states about plans at the agency to extend the scope of the SLA. This is what it is about. You can check out the links in the article to explore what kind of things might be considered as state-level factors under the SLA. That brings us to Dr. Chung. What he had to tell us last week might be included in what the IAEA Department of Safeguards describes as “open and other sources” of information used to obtain a “holistic appreciation” of a country’s nuclear program.

Of course, it is up to IAEA safeguards personnel in Operations A and their superiors alone to decide whether Dr Chung’s Carnegie comments on April 9 have any relevance to a discussion of the ROK’s “broader conclusion.” I would argue that the SLA would probably compel the Department of Safeguards to include this information and consider it in their internal deliberations prior to making any determinations.

The real question however is how the IAEA would interpret and contextualize what Dr. Chung had to say.

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.