2012 Nuclear Security Summit and South Korean Nuclear Interests

Current Issues in U.S.-ROK Relations

March 15, 2012


The Republic of Korea (ROK) will host the second Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Seoul on March 26 and 27. U.S. president Barack Obama, Chinese president Hu Jintao, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and leaders of more than fifty other countries and international organizations will attend.

Fred McGoldrick

Partner, Bengelsdorf, McGoldrick, and Associates, LLC

The Seoul meeting is a follow-on to the Washington NSS meeting in April 2010, which unanimously endorsed a nonbinding communiqué to secure global stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, the critical materials used in nuclear weapons, and agreed to a work plan that detailed steps states would take to implement pledges made in the communiqué. In addition, several nations made specific, national commitments to strengthen nuclear security.

More on:

South Korea

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

International Organizations

The Washington summit succeeded in heightening global awareness of the dangers of nuclear terrorism and motivating a number of states to improve nuclear security by ratifying international conventions and treaties on physical protection and nuclear terrorism and by updating their national nuclear security laws, regulations, and systems. Nevertheless, a recent report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) concluded that many states have a long way to go in providing adequate security for their nuclear material and that many storage sites for HEU and plutonium around the world are not well secured.

The 2012 Seoul NSS will be critical to motivate states to further the goals of the Washington summit. Like the other participating states, South Korea views the primary goal of this meeting as securing vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide and preventing acts of nuclear terrorism. In addition to hosting a successful summit, South Korea is pursuing several nuclear-related national interests not related directly to the summit.

First, Seoul seeks to address the North Korean nuclear threat. It has characterized the summit as highlighting "the importance of maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea." However, North Korea will not attend the summit. South Korea invited the North on the condition that Pyongyang give up its nuclear ambitions—a stipulation that was predictably unacceptable to the North. Nor will the North Korean nuclear weapons program be on the summit's agenda, since most states see the Six Party Talks as a more appropriate venue for addressing the North Korean threat. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Seoul summit will make a meaningful contribution to a resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue.

Second, South Korea has sought unsuccessfully to include nuclear safety as a subject of the summit. With twenty-three reactors that provide over 31 percent of its electricity needs and plans to provide 59 percent of electricity from forty reactors by 2030, nuclear power is a national priority for South Korea. But Seoul's nuclear power ambitions are meeting increasing public opposition in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan last year, and the main opposition party has promised to scale back the ROK plans to build more nuclear power plants if it wins elections this year. The South Korean government has, therefore, sought to use the summit to restore public confidence in nuclear power. However, the Seoul summit will not focus on nuclear safety as such but address this matter only where the issues of safety and security intersect, such as securing emergency electrical supplies and control rooms.

Third, the ROK would also like to make progress in negotiating a new peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. Seoul wants the United States to grant it long-term consent to enrichment and pyroprocessing (a form of reprocessing) of U.S.-supplied nuclear materials. This permission has been granted to other countries with major nuclear programs and comprehensive nonproliferation commitments, such as Japan. By hosting the Seoul summit, the ROK hopes to advance its position by showcasing its civilian nuclear power status and nonproliferation credentials. The ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has stated, "The fact that Seoul has been selected as the host city of the second NSS is a clear demonstration of Korea's elevated international standing. It also reflects the international community's recognition of our strong adherence to the nonproliferation principle and leading role in addressing climate change and spreading green growth as the fifth-largest nuclear powerhouse in the world and an exemplar of the peaceful use of nuclear power."

More on:

South Korea

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

International Organizations

By hosting the summit, the ROK's standing and credentials will undoubtedly be highlighted. But the ROK will face challenges in obtaining the U.S. permission it seeks. Despite exceptions made for certain countries, U.S. policy is to discourage the spread of both enrichment and pyroprocessing technologies, since they produce directly nuclear-weapon-usable materials. Moreover, though it has already granted long-term permission to Japan, the United States is concerned about the presence of such capabilities in an area as volatile as the Korean peninsula and is trying to persuade North Korea to dismantle its sensitive nuclear facilities. In addition, some members of Congress are trying to pass legislation that would pressure U.S. nuclear cooperating partners to make a legally binding commitment to forego the acquisition of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.

The ROK and the United States are struggling to devise a way forward on this issue that would be acceptable to both countries before the current agreement expires in 2014. There is no simple solution to the differences between the United States and South Korea on this question, and the two states may find it necessary to develop an interim, step-by-step approach that postpones final agreement until the two countries complete their ten-year joint study on the feasibility of pyroprocessing technology. In any event, resolving the conflicting national interests involved in this thorny issue can occur only through tough compromises by both sides in bilateral negotiations. It is doubtful that Seoul's burnishing of its nonproliferation bona fides by hosting the summit will have a significant effect on the outcome of these talks.

Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*