For some odd reason, all comments have closed on my post on the ROK 123 agreement extension.  Since I happen to firmly believe in debate and discourse, please see my colleague Ted Jones’ comments below (italics) on the the matter and in reaction to a talk I gave on May 17.  You can see and read what I think thanks to Elaine Grossman’s piece.  I know some folks don’t agree with Ted and some folks don’t agree with me:

It is a valid point that South Korea’s commitments stand in the way of its enrichment and reprocessing (E&R) activities, though it is doubtful that South Korea considers the 1992 Joint Declaration the major impediment. In any case, I would take issue with the description of South Korea as a “gold standard state.”

Clarity and consistency about what the “gold standard” means is important for understanding its limits as a policy and its consequences for U.S. interests. The term is generally taken to mean a state’s renunciation of E&R technologies on its soil, and its acceptance of other commitments – within the context of a U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement. By this common understanding, the UAE remains the only gold standard country. The United States has never asked South Korea to accept the gold standard because it is an advanced nuclear country and a close strategic ally. It is highly unlikely that South Korea would have agreed to renounce its E&R rights, if the United States had asked.

The important lesson of U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation is that a Section 123 agreement without the “gold standard” can nonetheless be an essential instrument of U.S. influence on international nuclear security and nonproliferation. The most powerful source of U.S. influence over South Korea’s E&R policies and activities is the U.S. consent right, contained in the current Section 123 agreement, over South Korea’s reprocessing of U.S.-origin fuel. The long-term successor agreement will extend this consent right to used fuel from non-U.S. reactors, and to South Korea’s enrichment and storage of plutonium or highly-enriched uranium. These consent rights, plus 8 other nonproliferation assurances and guarantees, are required in a “standard” Section 123 agreement. It is also important to note that the extensive U.S.-ROK commercial partnerships enabled by the agreement have significantly enhanced U.S. influence over nuclear energy both in South Korea and in markets, such as UAE, supplied by ROK in partnership with U.S. companies.

As the United States resumes negotiations of the long-term successor agreement with South Korea, plus 6 other renewal agreements set to expire by 2015 and new agreements with Vietnam, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it is crucial that the consequences of tying U.S. nuclear cooperation to acceptance of the gold standard are clearly understood. Among the 10 agreements, only Taiwan has indicated its willingness to forswear E&R in a Section 123 agreement. Given that Taiwan committed to the United States decades ago never to acquire E&R, its willingness to incorporate its existing commitment into a Section 123 agreement represents little change. Vietnam and Jordan have made clear that they are not interested in negotiating Section 123 agreements that would require them to forfeit E&R rights. Negotiations with both countries began in 2010. Talks with Saudi Arabia began last year, and it is doubtful whether Saudi Arabia will accept the U.S. request to forswear E&R.

When the United States refuses to conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement because a country declines the gold standard, it forfeits 9 nonproliferation assurances and guarantees from that country, including consent rights that other nuclear supplier countries do not require. It also precludes U.S. companies from participating in the country’s development of nuclear energy. But withholding U.S. nuclear cooperation does not prevent the country from gaining nuclear energy technology. Both Vietnam and Jordan have already moved ahead with their nuclear energy development plans in partnership with other countries – none of which seeks the renunciation of E&R. If remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia – which has cooperation agreements in place with France, China, South Korea and Argentina – will follow in their path.

Insistence on the gold standard has broader negative implications for the global nonproliferation regime. Countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are reluctant to accept the gold standard for legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with intentions to proliferate nuclear technology. As non-nuclear-weapon states, they have already forsworn nuclear weapons; as a matter of principle, they are loath to renounce also the right to make nuclear fuel. Some countries, such as Vietnam, take this position despite having no dreams of acquiring E&R capabilities. These states properly consider E&R to be within their rights to peaceful nuclear technology as provided in Article IV of the NPT. If the United States demands that they renounce E&R rights as a condition of U.S. nuclear cooperation, it will be vulnerable to charges of undermining the NPT.

The focus of recent years on the gold standard has also had the effect of exaggerating the proliferation risk posed by legal, as opposed to clandestine transfers of E&R. Only a few countries possess E&R technology and legal transfers have occurred only rarely, and with strict oversight. Since the establishment of the NSG in 1974, no NSG member has transferred E&R technologies to a state that did not already have E&R capabilities.

The case of South Korea demonstrates the limits of the gold standard as a universal policy, and the tremendous benefits to U.S. nonproliferation interests of a standard Section 123 agreement. If certain countries, such as Taiwan and UAE, readily agree to renounce E&R in a Section 123 agreement, then the United States would be foolish not to incorporate that commitment within the agreement. But if a country declines the gold standard, South Korea also illustrates the multiple benefits to U.S. national interests that may be lost by foregoing U.S. nuclear cooperation.