South Korea is pressing the Obama administration for U.S. permission to produce its own nuclear fuel, a move that experts said could trigger a wider atomic arms race in North Asia.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the talks between Seoul and Washington, though part of a broader, long-term civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, are taking place as tensions crest on both sides of the divided Korean Peninsula.
North Korea announced Tuesday that it would reopen a graphite-moderated reactor, the spent fuel from which can be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium. Although North Korea already has an estimated six to eight bombs’ worth of plutonium, the announcement will fuel calls in South Korea for the country to get its own atomic weapons capability.
“They are pushing hard for this reprocessing ability,” said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, who met with South Korean leaders last week in Seoul, including President Park Geun-hye, who is slated to visit Washington in May. “There is a lot of national pride in this.”
According to The Journal, Seoul has reassured Washington during the negotiations that it is not seeking to build nuclear weapons.
“This government has no intention at all of pursuing nuclear capabilities in terms of weapons,” a senior government official in Seoul said.
But U.S. lawmakers and proliferation specialists are concerned that the technologies Seoul wants to use — enriching uranium and reprocessing spent reactor fuel into plutonium — would provide it with the capabilities to make fissile materials for a nuclear bomb, The Journal reported Wednesday.
That will further inflame tensions across the divided peninsula and risk sparking a broader arms race in Northeast Asia, potentially including Japan, Taiwan and even mainland China.