NEW YORK ― President Park Geun-hye is expected to bring up the subject of South Korea’s demands regarding the peaceful use of nuclear energy for “enhanced mutual cooperation” during summit talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday (Wednesday Korea time).
Among the agenda items relevant to enhanced cooperation will be “a smooth implementation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and enhanced cooperation regarding the peaceful use of nuclear power between Seoul and Washington,” Ju Chul-ki, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs, said at a press briefing.
“It will be an important opportunity to enhance the strategic value of the Korea-U.S. alliance by further improving cooperation.”
South Korea has been demanding permission to enrich uranium for greater self-sufficiency in nuclear fuel and to reprocess spent fuel as it faces an imminent storage overflow, something the U.S. is reluctant to allow because it worries it may go against its nonproliferation efforts.
As the two governments failed to find a major breakthrough, they agreed last month to extend by two years the existing South Korean-U.S. nuclear accord that was originally set to expire next year. The move was also considered an attempt to alleviate the political burden on the two presidents meeting face-to-face for the first time.
Observers in Korea have suggested that the two leaders set the outline for future negotiations that will be held every three months from June.
The two countries have been in talks since October 2010 to amend the bilateral agreement that was signed in 1965 and last revised in 1974.
The two sides have seen some progress, such as in conducting a joint research project for a new technology called pyroprocessing to handle the spent fuel inventory with less proliferation risk.
“The civilian nuclear energy pact was signed four decades ago when South Korea was not what it is now. Its production of nuclear energy currently ranks fifth in the world with 23 nuclear reactors in operation ― totally different from what it was,” said Kim Ho-sup, international politics professor at Chung-Ang University.
“Washington is well aware of that, although it has concerns about Korean politicians asserting the need for South Korea’s nuclear armament and its past record of pursuing nuclear weapons. But the leaders would try to approach the issue based on mutual trust.”
Given that the allies have agreed to extend the current bilateral agreement by two years, details over the revision of the pact might not be discussed at the presidential meeting, he added.
By Lee Joo-hee, Korea Herald correspondent