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  • South Korea’s Search for Nuclear Sovereignty
  • Toby Dalton (bio) and Alexandra Francis (bio)

south korea, united states, nuclear sovereignty, nuclear policy[End Page 115]


This article argues that the narrow technical disagreements stalling the renegotiation of the U.S.–South Korea nuclear cooperation agreement mask a far larger and more complicated set of issues and interests that challenge both the future of bilateral nuclear cooperation and the nonproliferation regime.

main argument

An oft-stated South Korean objective in bilateral nuclear negotiations with the United States is to achieve “peaceful nuclear sovereignty.” This complex term, reflecting South Korea’s desire to decrease U.S. leverage over its nuclear affairs, has multiple connotations, including energy security, industry competitiveness, legitimate rights, status, and autonomy. There are tensions among these competing objectives, which, coupled with the inherent limitations on nuclear independence resulting from international nuclear trade regimes, make the concept of peaceful nuclear sovereignty a chimera. Other states—Iran, Brazil, and Turkey, for instance—are driven by similar sentiments, meaning that Washington must take care to resolve its differences with Seoul in a way that balances nonproliferation and nuclear energy interests.

policy implications

  • • The wellspring of South Korea’s likely disappointment is the unattainability of peaceful nuclear sovereignty itself. Negotiating among the bureaucratic and public interests that embody these complex aspirations in Seoul will be a greater challenge for the Park Geun-hye administration than the talks with Washington.

  • • How the United States and South Korea resolve the enrichment and reprocessing issue will set a precedent for how states should address other non–nuclear weapons states interested in pursuing sensitive nuclear technologies and thus holds implications beyond the Korean Peninsula.

  • • There is common ground between Seoul and Washington on the need to strengthen global standards for nuclear security and safety, which provides a basis for resolving their differences through deeper collaboration coupled with enhanced monitoring. [End Page 116]

Since 2010, negotiators from the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have sought to bridge an impasse holding up the conclusion of a bilateral nuclear cooperation pact. The outdated agreement governing this issue, concluded in the 1970s when South Korea was a nuclear neophyte, was to expire in 2014; the sides agreed on a temporary extension to 2016, giving negotiators more time to work. Seoul and Washington concur on the need to make the new agreement consistent with South Korea’s stature as an advanced nuclear energy state. But South Korea also seeks to win U.S. permission to conduct advanced, proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, such as reprocessing spent fuel, which Washington has refused on nonproliferation grounds. Although this disagreement might seem narrow and technical, the impasse masks a far larger and more complicated set of issues that implicate not just the future of U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation but also the viability of the nonproliferation regime to continue to satisfy the interests of states such as South Korea.

For the United States, nuclear negotiations with South Korea primarily are focused on facilitating commercial nuclear trade and sustaining nonproliferation standards. The latter, however, conflict with South Korea’s nuclear ambitions in two ways. First, Seoul’s desire to conduct the enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear materials—activities that can also be used to make fuel for nuclear weapons—contradicts U.S. policy to discourage the spread and use of these technologies. Second, Seoul’s continued adherence to a 1992 joint declaration between North and South Korea, under which both sides agreed not to possess enrichment and reprocessing facilities, represents a central element of U.S. policy toward the denuclearization of North Korea. Although North Korea long ago broke that agreement, South Korean enrichment and reprocessing activities could confound efforts to roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. For these reasons, Washington opposes Seoul’s request to enrich or reprocess U.S.-obligated nuclear material.

But Seoul is not just negotiating for enhanced terms of nuclear trade or permission to conduct enrichment and reprocessing. For South Korea, the negotiations have a strong political impetus, as they symbolize both its global aspirations and complicated relationship with the United States. The deeper motivation behind its negotiating stance, as captured in terminology used...


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