South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Obama no doubt will look to project a unified front when the two leaders meet Tuesday at the White House to discuss how best to address the North Korean nuclear threat.
But beneath that show of unity, tensions lurk. Among them are American resistance to Seoul’s growing desire to produce and refine nuclear materials and South Korea’s fear that the U.S. is taking a soft posture toward Japan, which the Asian region sees as increasingly nationalistic.
The Obama administration has been less than eager to discuss such topics ahead of Ms. Park’s arrival at the White House, focusing instead on her visit’s significance in marking the 60-year anniversary celebrations for the military alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of South Korea.
“In our view, the U.S.-ROK alliance is stronger than it’s ever been before,” Daniel Russell, Mr. Obama’s director for Asian affairs, said Monday night.
He described the two countries’ alliance as a “global partnership” that includes cooperation on a range of issues, including foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan and efforts to combat climate change.
Total alignment between the two nations, however, is far from complete, according to some foreign policy insiders, who point to Seoul’s disappointment over what many in South Korea see as a restrictive nuclear pact with Washington.
Under a 1972 accord, the U.S. provides nuclear fuel and technology to South Korea on the condition that Seoul will not pursue enrichment — a necessary step for the production of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. maintains a more open version of such accords with allies in Europe and elsewhere in Asia, allowing nations to reprocess spent nuclear fuel on the condition that the activity will be open to monitoring by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.
The Obama administration signed such an accord with India in 2010, but has avoided doing so with Seoul, apparently because of concerns that allowing uranium enrichment in South Korea would only add fuel to an increasingly heated regional arms race. As a result, the two sides agreed last month to extend the existing accord for another two years.
But Washington’s posture has left some in South Korea scratching their heads. “Japan was allowed to reprocess spent fuel 25 years ago. Why not Korea?” asked B.J. Kim, a professor of international relations at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
“An increasing portion of the Korean public is taking this as an issue of national pride and trust with Korea’s closest ally,” he said, arguing that from the South Korean perspective, the issue has more to do with nuclear waste logistics than with geopolitics.
“Without being allowed to reprocess spent fuel, we have been storing the spent fuel rods at nuclear power plants for the past four decades,” Mr. Kim said. “We are not the United States. So, as one of the most densely populated major economies of the world, we simply do not have uninhabited land where we can bury them.”
It would be in Ms. Park’s best interest, he said, to “articulate Korea’s dilemma in very easy-to-understand terms, put it in official record and publicize it with the D.C. audience.”
Others said the issue is unlikely to rear its head at the White House. “My understanding is that both sides feel like by providing a two-year extension [to the existing nuclear accord], they’re trying to take it off the agenda for this meeting,” said Scott A. Snyder, who heads the program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “They’re essentially pushing the can down the road.”
Mr. Russell made no mention of the issue during a call with reporters Monday night. Instead, he said, Mr. Obama and Ms. Park are likely to issue “a joint declaration commemorating the 60-year anniversary of the U.S.-ROK alliance.”