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The mantra from South Korea is that these capabilities that they are seeking --enrichment and pyro-processing -- don't have anything to do with North Korea. And that's clearly not true, because essentially, in 1992, the two Koreas pledged not to have reprocessing and enrichment on the Korean peninsula. When the North Koreans violated that agreement by setting up an enrichment plant in 2010, that provided the South Koreans an opening to go back to the U.S. and say okay, because North Korea has violated that pledge, now we want to have enrichment and pyro-processing capabilities.

There's a direct connection between the South Korean quest for these activities and the North Korea dilemma. So, the question is, is the U.S. worried about South Korea misusing that technology?

Should we be?

Let me put it this way: since the threats from North Korea have escalated, the Koreans have come to the U.S. and said, we want to see the U.S. do more to show that your guarantees to defend us under our bilateral agreement are reliable.

And the steps that we're seeing -- overflights of B2s, decisions by the U.S. to deploy missile defense installations and so forth -- this is the beginning of a discussion that the U.S. and South Korea will have over several months, to address this residual concern by South Korea that the U.S. defense guarantee is not credible.

Before we get to a point where the South Koreans would even think about having nuclear weapons, you can assume that the South Koreans and the U.S. would go into a room together and talk about what they can do to bolster the U.S. deterrent against an North Korean attack, including against a nuclear attack, and prepare for a number of North Korean threats.

That being said, if you ask me if I believe that regardless of the taboo that exists over this entire subject ... if the U.S. government thinks about the prospect of South Korea becoming a nuclear-armed state? Of course I do. Of course people in the U.S. government think about this.

There is a residual concern about the possibility, remote as it may be, that these technologies, if Korea were to obtain them, could in a very, very dire scenario lead to a false confidence on the part of South Korean politicians -- backed, incidentally, by a public which by a large margin believes in a very foggy way that having nuclear weapons would be good for Korea -- that in a very extreme scenario, the Koreans could be tempted to leave the NPT.

It's by no means conventional wisdom. But it is something that people think about. And it's an issue in part because of the past legacy under President Park. There have been some other occasions where the Korean research establishment controlled by the government has enriched tiny amounts of uranium without declaring it. They have separated tiny amounts of plutonium. The amounts are not by any means a serious concern. What is of some concern is ultimately the motivation and the attention of the people getting involved in those activities.

...This concern about South Korea should be factored into the decision that is made by both governments about how to move forward with this civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.

Either the South Koreans should think twice right now about whether they want to go ahead with these sensitive technologies as long as North Korean nuclear weapons pose a growing threat. Or the alternative would be that if in fact the United States is prepared to let South Korea pyro-process and enrich uranium under the agreement, then both sides should agree to very clear conditions under which that activity could take place.

That would mean that conditions would have to conform to requirements in U.S. law, including in the Atomic Energy Act, which says that a decision by the United States in a cooperation agreement with a partner should be such that the activities covered, included, or permitted under the agreement would "not be inimical to the common defense and security" of the U.S., and furthermore that they would not result in a significant increase in the risk of proliferation...

My understanding is that the South Korean government has taken the position in principle that this negotiation has nothing to do with the North Korean threat, and by consequence has nothing to do with any scenario suggesting that South Korea would leave the NPT or move towards development of nuclear weapons. I can understand that from the point of view of South Korea's research and science community. But it's clear that there is a nexus between South Korea's request to have the United States honor its resolve to have pyro-processing and enrichment, and the North Korean situation. If it weren't for the fact that North Korea had violated the agreement from 1992, the South Korean request for enrichment and reprocessing would not be on the table at all.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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