A Nuclear South Korea?

SEOUL – South Korean officials have recently realized that the United States is likely to try to forbid them from enriching uranium and expanding their country’s missile range, rather than leave these issues on the diplomatic back burner. Indeed, recent discreet talks, in which the US has disregarded South Korean efforts to supplement the controversial US-South Korea Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which expires in March 2014, suggest that there are reasons to be deeply worried about the alliance’s future.

American negotiators – the reluctant midwives of South Korea’s increasing responsibility in the field of atomic energy – remain steadfast in their opposition to South Korea’s drive for improved defensive capabilities and a more advanced energy policy, despite the potential strategic benefits. But American nonproliferation experts do not anticipate progress on South Korea’s efforts to win support for its preferred policies until the US gains more leverage.

Such a stalemate is not new. Nuclear talks between the two countries have often been characterized by poor communication and a lack of understanding. While South Korean officials rarely say in public what they really think, it is widely believed that US policymakers have little motivation to reconcile with South Korea’s government right now – they would prefer to stifle South Korea’s increasingly loud demands.

In the US-South Korea relationship’s heyday, American politicians considered the country an “extended arm of America.” Such condescension may have been defensible when South Korea’s military dictatorship needed America’s political protection and security guarantee, but now the country is a beacon of democracy in East Asia. So, while South Koreans understand the need for compromise and cooperation, they believe that the time is right for a more balanced partnership.