In the Washington Declaration, South Korea reaffirmed compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the ROK-U.S. nuclear agreement. Nonetheless, North Korea is expected to conduct its seventh nuclear test, China is expanding its nuclear arsenal, and Russia is withdrawing from the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (NTBT). South Korea exchanged its nuclear last resort for national survival with the pledge of extended deterrence contained in the declaration.
Less than a year after South Korea declared denuclearization, military technology and arms talks between North Korea and Russia have emerged as potential threats. North Korea has already provided Russia with artillery shells for the war in Ukraine. In return, Russia is likely to transfer some of its most advanced military technologies to North Korea, such as nuclear warhead miniaturization, nuclear-powered submarines, and reconnaissance satellites. Russia even bluntly made a public endorsement of North Korea’s nuclear program during the recent Putin-Kim summit, calling it a matter of sovereign security.
In addition to South Koreans’ natural distrust towards the nuclear umbrella, Russia’s recognition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, China’s acquiescence, and North Korea’s growing offensive and nuclear-related capabilities have already begun to erode the expected benefits of the nuclear umbrella. Conventionally-armed South Korea is now the closest country to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, as well as to maritime and territorial conflicts with nuclear-armed China.
South Korea should respond legitimately. The best way to do so without leaving the NPT regime is to revise the U.S.-ROK nuclear agreement to secure its nuclear latency. Although the deal is due for renegotiation in 2035, it should be changed as soon as possible to send a robust message to North Korea and China. As time goes on, neither the nuclear deterrence of Japan (a nuclear threshold state) nor the acknowledged nuclear-armed United States will deteriorate in East Asia. Oppositely, non-nuclear South Korea would find itself cornered compared to all other regional powers.
A Non-Partisan Case for Revision
The current U.S.-ROK nuclear agreement was signed over 40 years ago and stemmed from Seoul’s need for American nuclear technical support and the détente at that time. This no longer reflects the current situation. Indeed, there is still a discrepancy in South Korea’s long-term nuclear roadmap, but as a short-term goal, South Korea has already reached a consensus regarding the agreement and nuclear weapons.
Even the Yoon administration, which publicly emphasized its non-proliferation stance, agrees with this idea. The National Security Office even acknowledged that South Korea needs close consultation with the United States regarding the issue of reprocessing and reducing nuclear waste, as South Korea has been utilizing nuclear energy in a peaceful manner and has the most advanced nuclear facilities and management experience. South Korea recognizes it as a prime task.
The opposition party, which has a much stronger nuclear non-proliferation stance, has already argued for the need to revise the agreement to strengthen South Korean nuclear capabilities in both security and economic aspects. The party thinks that the revision is necessary and that the government should take an active role in revising it to the level of the Japan-U.S. nuclear agreement. The former Liberal government’s Foreign Minister also openly advised President Yoon to prepare for nuclear latency.
The reality is that South Korea is the only nation that does not have the right to reprocess nuclear wastes and enrich uranium among countries that export nuclear power plants. Australia, which possesses a poor nuclear infrastructure, will acquire nuclear-powered submarines as a non-proliferation exception in the AUKUS framework. But nuclear-advanced South Korea is still hesitant to develop a nuclear-powered submarine for political reasons, even though a submarine’s nuclear propulsion can be interpreted as a non-military use of nuclear energy that does not carry a nuclear warhead and, therefore, does not violate the NPT, depending on the interpretation of the NPT.
Having declared its adherence to the NPT and abandonment of indigenous nuclear weapons, most South Koreans now believe that the agreement should be revised as a minimum quid pro quo. This would undoubtedly address complaints and concerns of pro-nuclear Koreans.
An Outdated Agreement
South Korea is in the abnormal position of not being able to acquire nuclear latency despite its advanced technology, economic and security justifications, and its position as a key U.S. ally. The nuclear agreement is excessively restrictive compared to the Japan-U.S. nuclear agreement. The root of the problem is Washington’s different treatment of South Korea compared to Japan. South Koreans tend to share the impression that the White House does not care about treating Korean nuclear capabilities as much as the United States did for Japan and Australia, underestimating direct nuclear threats posed to allies by neighboring adversaries.
The current ROK-U.S. nuclear agreement was revised in 2015 when Washington insisted it could not allow Seoul to enrich or reprocess nuclear materials. In the end, South Korea is only authorized to conduct some basic research, but not much else. Seoul was only allowed to go further on the condition that it must be consulted with the United States in advance, as per Articles 7 and 11. Nevertheless, it has not been easy to obtain it in practice.
According to the deal, the written agreement of both states could enable further nuclear activities, but South Korea could never do it because the United States did not give consent. Reprocessing has significant economic and security benefits, but South Korea has not been able to take advantage of its nuclear prowess because of the shackled agreement.
Security and Economic Implications of Revising the Nuclear Agreement
Economically, nuclear waste management threatens the sustainability of South Korea’s nuclear power as its primary environmentally friendly energy source. Storage facilities are almost full, and there is a growing concern that nuclear power plant operations could be disrupted. As the agreement prevents South Korea from reprocessing nuclear wastes, it has resulted in significant economic losses due to outsourced reprocessing abroad. South Korea thus spends a considerable amount of money to import nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants.
Also, plutonium-free dry reprocessing technology is projected to take decades until commercialization, and landfilling still faces environmental concerns and public backlash. It is also difficult to build multiple new nuclear waste repositories due to activist group opposition. Reprocessing plants can increase efficiency as they would produce recyclables for operating nuclear power plants, reduce the volume of waste, and eventually minimize the financial losses and environmental concerns of South Korea.
Regarding national security, a revised nuclear agreement would create a “semi-nuclear balance” that would allow South Korea to take a breath and align itself more with the White House in its security strategy with lessened anxiety. South Korea is the country that needs more nuclear latency than any other state. North Korea and China are nuclear-armed, but South Korea only has conventional weapons, and the American nuclear umbrella alone might not assure the confidence of mutual assured destruction and balance of terror. If nuclearization is not physically possible in the near term, and the United States does not want to allow it, then having nuclear latency is the least Washington should let South Korea do.
From the perspective of energy security, it is concerning that Russia is the largest exporter of nuclear fuel. South Korea depends on Russia for 30 percent of its nuclear fuel. There are many reasons why South Korea does not provide arms to Ukraine, contrary to Western demands. Still, the possibility of a nuclear fuel embargo is a bargaining chip that Moscow has over Seoul. If Seoul should be more supportive of Washington’s multi-sided engagements in the world, the White House should agree to revise the agreement to ensure that South Korea does not fall under the influence of authoritarian powers.
Therefore, it is fair for South Korea to demand nuclear rights for both security and economic reasons, as long as Seoul does not go nuclear without Washington’s consent. When India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests, for example, Japan reassured the United States that Tokyo would outsource nuclear waste reprocessing to Britain and France and would not proliferate. Similarly, the Yoon administration made clear recently that Seoul is committed to its NPT obligations, even under Chinese and North Korean nuclear threats. At the Camp David summit, South Korea, the United States, and Japan agreed to respond to Sino-North Korean movements as a team.
Transparency and trust between the two countries are stronger than ever, as governments have reiterated their non-proliferation principle. South Korea has also been a role model state in nuclear energy, having sufficiently shown its sincere commitment to the peaceful use of atomic energy since the 1970s. Hence, there is no problem for the United States to start discussing revising the nuclear agreement with South Korea.
The Japan Model
Japan’s path to revising its nuclear agreement was not smooth. Tokyo re-negotiated sixteen times with Washington between 1982 and 1987. Japan’s successful revision is a case that Seoul should closely look at. Tokyo gained the trust of the international community by declaring the three non-nuclear principles that Japan will not possess, make, and introduce nuclear weapons. It was a strategic choice to achieve its goals.