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(News Focus) S. Korea, U.S. stuck in nonproliferation dilemma

All Headlines 03:47 July 17, 2012

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, July 16 (Yonhap) -- After years of "best-ever" partnerships in handling North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, South Korea and the United States find themselves in a drawn-out stalemate over their own nuclear and missile issues.

South Korea has sought to upgrade its ballistic missile capability and expand its non-military nuclear activity.

But Seoul remains shackled by separate accords with Washington, originally forged decades ago. Years-long consultations between the allies over the matters have been deadlocked.

"Those are not only bilateral affairs but also associated with global nonproliferation issues. That is why it is difficult to reach a compromise," a South Korean government official told Yonhap News Agency.

South Korea openly raised the need to extend the maximum range of its ballistic missiles from the current 300 kilometers to at least 800 km in order to counter the North.

In response to Yonhap's query, the Pentagon said there is "no update" regarding consultations on the issue.

The State Department reiterated its basic stance: "We must consider this issue responsibly and ensure that any steps we take to ensure strong Republic of Korea defense capabilities are consistent with our shared regional and global nonproliferation objectives."

Seoul and Washington also have struggled to rewrite a pact on their nuclear energy cooperation, signed in 1974 and set to expire in 2014. It bans South Korea from reprocessing nuclear waste from about two dozen reactors that use U.S.-supplied nuclear materials.

South Korea hopes to reprocess spent fuel to meet the country's status as an atomic plant exporter.

"The two sides remain at odds over key aspects of how their nuclear cooperation will proceed," said Miles Pomper, senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The U.S. has "sought to limit the global spread of these technologies as they can be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons as well as fuel for nuclear reactors," he pointed out.

Pomper expressed doubt that the two sides will make progress on the sensitive matter within their presidential election year.

Critics say the Lee Myung-bak administration has put the issues on the back burner as it focused on spreading the image that it has achieved a better alliance with Washington than at any other time.

Adding to the uncertainty, South Korea's senior presidential external policy aide, Kim Tae-hyo, stepped down in early July. He was held responsible for the Cabinet's secret passage of a treaty with Japan on sharing military intelligence, which prompted a public uproar.

Kim had served as a "control tower" in Seoul's handling of the missile range and atomic power issues.

"Kim Tae-hyo has been a key player in U.S.-ROK (South Korea) issues, particularly those affecting the alliance," said Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

But he said he expects a limited impact from Kim's departure.

"The bilateral security relationship is bigger than any one person," he said.

The U.S. appears to place a priority on building up a framework for greater trilateral military coordination with South Korea and Japan, Klingner said.



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