Blogging at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt offers a timely analysis of South Korea’s proposal to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods.
First, the background: South Korea—a steadfast U.S. ally—has proposed to begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods. South Korea depends on nuclear power for up to 40 percent of its electricity generation. But it is running out of room to store the spent rods. One solution is to reprocess the materials, which would both provide fuel for next generation reactors and reduce the total volume of the waste produced. The problem for South Korea is that a 1974 treaty with the United States prohibits the country from reprocessing its nuclear waste because the process generates plutonium that can be used in the production of nuclear weapons. The 1974 treaty expires in 2014, and South Korea’s proposal comes ahead of talks intended to extend the agreement. At least so far, the United States remains opposed to South Korea’s proposal.
As Walt notes, there are three policy challenges presented by the South Korean proposal to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods. First, the precedent set by the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal permitted India to reprocess spent rods. From the South Korean perspective, this represents a hypocritical double standard. India—already a nuclear power outside the NPT—is granted permission that is denied South Korea—a non-nuclear power inside the NPT.
Second, there are intra-alliance bargaining challenges presented by the recent developments. South Korea’s pledge not to develop a nuclear weapons program is predicated on its close ties to Washington. If that alliance begins to deteriorate, perhaps as U.S. forces are relocated away from the Korean peninsula to pursue national security objectives elsewhere, South Korea may feel increased pressure to develop its own defensive capacity, particularly in light of the potential threat posed by North Korea and the declining relations between the two countries following the Cheonan incident in March.
Finally, as Walt notes, there is a degree of hypocrisy in the U.S. position more generally, where Washington pressures countries not to develop their own nuclear civilian or military nuclear programs while maintaining the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons as a central component of its national defense strategy.
Walt concludes that, “In my view, there’s nothing reprehensible or even surprising about this situation; it merely reminds us that no two states have the same interests and that hypocritical (or more politely, ‘inconsistent’) behavior is common-place in international politics. But the U.S. ability to persuade others not to flirt with their own nuclear capabilities might be a lot stronger if we didn’t place so much value on them ourselves.”
A broader question might also be asked about the role nuclear weapons in national defense. While the United States in April announced a review of its nuclear strategy, which was launched to much fanfare but probably resulted in little real change. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both maintained extensive nuclear arsenals intended to deter attacks from the other. But while mutually assured destruction maintained an uneasy stability between the two superpowers, would nuclear deterrence [glossary] function effectively on the Korean peninsula or in South Asia? Just as was the case during the Cold War, the effectiveness of deterrence depends on the rationality of the actors and the credibility of the threat. When actors become locked into standard operating procedures (the Cuban Missile Crisis) or when they behave in irrational ways (Kim Il-Jong, anyone?), the effectiveness of deterrence breaks down and the threat of nuclear war increases. Is it time for a refresher viewing of Dr. Strangelove?