What, then, should Washington do?
First, President Obama should resist Seoul’s demands to recycle U.S.-origin spent fuel. America is Seoul’s close security ally, and we should never want to keep our allies weak. Yet letting Seoul develop a “peaceful” nuclear-weapons option of its own would hardly draw us closer — just the opposite, in fact. More important, it would risk catalyzing a regional nuclear-weapons competition that would jeopardize everyone’s security, including Seoul’s. Also, mollifying Seoul on this nuclear matter can only complicate our case for resisting Iran’s nuclear-fuel-making passions.
Seoul, however, feels justifiably slighted by Washington’s uneven treatment of it as compared with Japan. Rather than try to correct this by duplicating in South Korea its misguided support for Japan’s plutonium programs, though, Washington should offer South Korea something it needs that will help it promote its nuclear industry and nonproliferation at the same time.
Both Seoul and Tokyo want to export reactors to Vietnam, the UAE, Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. These reactors were originally designed by U.S. firms (Combustion Engineering, Westinghouse, and General Electric). To make the transactions legal, lawyers have advised Japan and South Korea to have the recipient nations apply for U.S. nuclear-technology export licenses. This, in turn, will require each nation to have a U.S. civilian nuclear-cooperative agreement in place. All this legal due diligence presents additional trade uncertainties and worries for Japanese and South Korean nuclear exporters. It also gives the U.S. an excellent diplomatic lever to turn matters around.
Why not tell Seoul that the U.S. would be willing to explicitly waive the need for them to secure any licenses to export Japanese and South Korean nuclear reactors if Japan and South Korea agree to a set of additional nonproliferation conditions to be negotiated with Washington, and to put off recycling any U.S.-origin spent reactor fuel? Having such an understanding would give South Korea a nuclear-export leg up on Japan that could be used to induce Tokyo to reach such an agreement with Washington as well.
Congress, eager to strengthen alliance ties with Seoul and Tokyo, would like this approach. It’s been increasingly eager to tighten U.S. and allied controls on civilian nuclear exports to avoid any future Irans (i.e., U.S.-supported reactor programs that end up becoming bomb projects). The White House would be wise to consult with the Hill on any such moves.
President Obama should be attracted to this approach because it would burnish his nuclear-control credentials. Yet to secure real credibility on this count, the White House will have to take an additional step.
It is an open secret that any further U.S.-Russian nuclear-weapons-reduction agreements are unlikely. Moscow likes its nuclear weapons and does not want to give them up. Recently, however, the Russians have laid down one condition that Washington ought to consider. Only two months ago, the former commander of the Russian strategic-missile forces briefed Pentagon officials on Russian concerns about China’s nuclear capabilities. He and other Russian officials have called on the U.S. to include China in any future arms-reductions talks.
Publicly agreeing with Moscow on this point makes sense. Certainly, calling on China to join in any future arms talks would help the U.S. close ranks with its East Asian allies, particularly Japan. Tokyo is extremely worried about what China’s strategic forces might look like in 5 to 15 years; it’s even more worried that Washington doesn’t care. As goes Japan with its nuclear hedging, though, so goes South Korea.
For these reasons, calling on Beijing to join in strategic-arms talks is a wise move. The only question now is how the White House and Congress will see matters — and what, if anything, they will do.
— Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Va., and the editor of Nuclear Nonproliferation: Moving Beyond Pretense (2012).