- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

South Korea's Search for Nuclear Sovereignty

Toby Dalton and Alexandra Francis


This article argues that the narrow technical disagreements stalling the renegotiation of the U.S.–South Korea nuclear cooperation agreement mask a far larger and more complicated set of issues and interests that challenge both the future of bilateral nuclear cooperation and the nonproliferation regime.

Main Argument

An oft-stated South Korean objective in bilateral nuclear negotiations with the United States is to achieve "peaceful nuclear sovereignty." This complex term, reflecting South Korea's desire to decrease U.S. leverage over its nuclear affairs, has multiple connotations, including energy security, industry competitiveness, legitimate rights, status, and autonomy. There are tensions among these competing objectives, which, coupled with the inherent limitations on nuclear independence resulting from international nuclear trade regimes, make the concept of peaceful nuclear sovereignty a chimera. Other states—Iran, Brazil, and Turkey, for instance—are driven by similar sentiments, meaning that Washington must take care to resolve its differences with Seoul in a way that balances nonproliferation and nuclear energy interests.

Policy Implications

  • The wellspring of South Korea's likely disappointment is the unattainability of peaceful nuclear sovereignty itself. Negotiating among the bureaucratic and public interests that embody these complex aspirations in Seoul will be a greater challenge for the Park Geun-hye administration than the talks with Washington.
  • How the United States and South Korea resolve the enrichment and reprocessing issue will set a precedent for how states should address other non–nuclear weapons states interested in pursuing sensitive nuclear technologies and thus holds implications beyond the Korean Peninsula.
  • There is common ground between Seoul and Washington on the need to strengthen global standards for nuclear security and safety, which provides a basis for resolving their differences through deeper collaboration coupled with enhanced monitoring.