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.
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.