Would they want the ability to reprocess plutonium just to send a message to the North, or because they actually want to give themselves themselves the
option of launching a serious nuclear weapons program?
Neither. The primary reason the South Koreans want this capability is that it has thousands of tons of used power reactor fuel that they have to dispose
of, and they want to use the technology to do that.
The problem is that there's a difference....about how to move forward on this issue. The U.S. has not been willing to seriously engage with the South's
legitimate claim that it is a member of the NPT, that its nuclear materials are declared and verified by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] as not
being for nuclear weapons, and that they have bona fide, legitimate reasons for going forward with these sensitive nuclear activities.
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.