The U.S. and South Korea are extending for two years their current civilian nuclear agreement and postponing a contentious decision on whether Seoul will be allowed to reprocess spent fuel as it seeks to expand its atomic energy industry.
Wednesday's announcement is a setback to South Korea's new leader, Park Geun-hye, who had made revision of the 39-year-old treaty one of her top election pledges, but it alleviates a potential disagreement between the allies when Park visits Washington in two weeks to meet with President Obama.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the extension will provide more time for the two governments to complete the complex negotiations on a successor agreement that will recommence in June.
"These are very technical talks, and both parties felt that we needed more time," he told reporters.
South Korea is the world's fifth-largest nuclear energy producer and is planning to expand domestic use of nuclear power and exports of nuclear reactors. But its radioactive waste storage is filling up, so it wants to be able to reprocess spent plutonium. It also wants to be able enrich uranium, a process that uranium must undergo to become a viable nuclear fuel. Currently, South Korea has to get countries such as the U.S. and France to do enrichment for it.
Revising the agreement is a sensitive matter as the same technologies can also be used to develop nuclear weapons. Washington has historically opposed allowing reprocessing and enrichment by its nuclear partners so as to prevent proliferation of the technology. The issue has added sensitivity on the divided Korean Peninsula because of North Korea's active pursuit of such weapons and international demands it desist.
Victor Cha at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said the U.S. and South Korea had been deadlocked after two years of negotiations on a revised agreement and showing little inclination for compromise. Failure to extend the current agreement would have had a major impact on both the U.S. and South Korean nuclear industries, and would have been a blow to the Washington-Seoul alliance, he said.
"Punting the negotiations down the road for two years is advisable, benefits industry by creating some sense of predictability, and is politically neutral," Cha wrote in a commentary Wednesday.
The current agreement, last amended in 1974, expires in March 2014. Its renewal has to be submitted to Congress by this summer for approval.
South Korea is a staunch U.S. ally hosting American forces. The relationship was founded on strong security ties but expanded last year when a landmark free trade pact came into effect.
Park will visit the White House on May 7. She will also address a joint meeting of Congress.