On Sunday, North Korea successfully launched a satellite into space for what it called peaceful purposes, triggering the perfunctory denunciations of its neighbors. South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch a challenge to world peace, and Japan vowed to resolutely take measures in response to the provocation. Likewise, the United Nations condemned the test in an emergency Security Council session, affirming that a clear threat to international security continues to exist -- particularly in the context of nuclear security.
The international community's response to Pyongyang's satellite launch shows how the threat of nuclear proliferation typically enters the Western policy discourse in reference to countries hostile to U.S. interests. Rarely, if ever, do policymakers worry that a friendly nation might draw the nuclear card. Until recently, an ally acquiring threshold nuclear capabilities had been a fairly remote possibility. What is known as a non-proliferation Gold Standard requires countries to forgo uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing in exchange for U.S. civil nuclear assistance.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran that resulted in the lifting of many sanctions on Iran just three weeks ago, risks lowering the standard by making threshold nuclear capabilities more attainable for countries seeking an advanced nuclear program. By giving Tehran domestic enrichment capabilities, and allowing that enrichment capacity to expand over time, the deal contradicts decades of U.S. policy on non-proliferation and could weaken Washington's position in future nuclear negotiations. After seeing Tehran walk away from the negotiating table with enrichment and reprocessing rights, how many countries would now accept greater constraints on their nuclear activities than were demanded of Iran?
Certainly not South Korea.
A steadfast U.S. ally, Seoul also concluded its bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington (the 123 Agreement) in June, after five years of tough negotiations during which Seoul insisted upon domestic enrichment and reprocessing. To South Korea's good fortune, it just so happened that the United States was in talks to fine-tune the international nuclear accord with Iran around the same time.
As South Korean nuclear policymakers observed, in its talks with Iran, Washington was sending conflicting messages about its stance on non-proliferation. If the United States made concessions on enrichment and reprocessing rights to a country in the so-called Axis of Evil, then Seoul certainly should receive similar if not better terms. Unwittingly, the structural flaws in the Iran nuclear deal make it easier for Seoul -- or any country, for that matter -- to build its case for spent fuel management capabilities.
Consequently, last summer, South Korean interlocutors walked away from the 123 Agreement negotiations triumphant. The revised agreement left open the possibility of Seoul obtaining domestic enrichment capabilities, contingent upon bilateral consultations with Washington and a written arrangement. The two countries will also continue their 10-year Joint Fuel Cycle Study to examine the technical and economic feasibility of pyroprocessing.
The duration of the nuclear pact was also reduced from 30 years to 20, after South Korean negotiators argued that a lengthy agreement would shackle the country's nuclear progress. If Seoul does have ambitions for threshold nuclear capability, a shorter-term deal would reduce the wait for a full-fledged nuclear program.
The revised 123 Agreement essentially made domestic enrichment and reprocessing capabilities an attainable goal for South Korea. A nuclear weapons program may not yet be in the cards, but at the least, such an agreement opens opportunities for Seoul to become one of the world's most advanced nuclear states.
Many observers would dismiss the notion of a nuclear South Korea. After all, Seoul has been a reliable U.S. ally since the end of the Korean War, including on the issue of non-proliferation. South Korea has also experienced nuclear threats firsthand from its closest neighbor and arch-foe, North Korea. Having condemned Pyongyang's nuclear tests and supported international measures to restrict the North's nuclear program, Seoul knows well the economic and political consequences of misusing nuclear technology. If South Korea decided to go nuclear, it too may face damage to its reputation, as well as political and financial costs from the international non-proliferation community.
But even generally reliable partners could inadvertently mishandle nuclear technology, bringing unintended consequences. Northeast Asia is already fraught with security tensions and rivalries. Imagine the regional response should South Korea ever decide to pursue a nuclear weapons program. China and Russia are already declared nuclear weapons states; North Korea has conducted several nuclear tests; Japan has the latent technological capacity to build nuclear weapons; and North Korea just demonstrated twice this year its nuclear weaponization potential, through an alleged hydrogen bomb test and a satellite launch. If South Korea joins the fray, a Northeast Asian arms race would be inevitable.
The Gold Standard was originally put in place precisely to prevent such catastrophes. But our inconsistent approach on nuclear non-proliferation has made it more difficult for the United States and the global non-proliferation community to set any kind of standard at all in future nuclear talks. The South Korean case has demonstrated that even close allies are prone to place their national interests ahead of global non-proliferation priorities. When other countries begin to line up and demand similar terms for their nuclear agreements with the United States, are we prepared to manage the proliferation cascade?