South Korean scientists extracted plutonium in 1982 without reporting it. A week after admitting government scientists enriched uranium in a clandestine experiment four years earlier, South Korea revealed it also engaged in plutonium research more than 20 years ago. South Korean officials confirmed that several milligrams of plutonium were extracted in a 1982 experiment at the country's nuclear energy research institute. South Korean diplomats insisted the experiments were extremely limited and conducted purely for scientific research.
Under the NPT, South Korea is allowed to conduct experiments with nuclear material. But all such experiments have to be reported to the IAEA so it can verify that none of the material involved is being used for military purposes. So the experiments themselves are not illegal. But carrying them out without declaring them to the appropriate international agency is illegal.
South Korea started the initial stages of a clandestine nuclear weapons program during the early 1980s, when the future of its security relationship with the United States was in doubt. That was after Washington announced possible plans to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea: "The United States learned of this nuclear activity and through political pressure and persuasion was able to end the program at a very early stage.
After the end of its nuclear weapon program, by the late 1980s South Korea retained interest in reprocessing spent fuel from its civilian nuclear power program, hoping that plutonium recycling would reduce dependence on imported uranium. The United States consistently opposed South Korean reprocessing initiatives, citing weapons proliferation concerns.
British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) had sought to obtain reprocessing contracts with South Korea, similar to the arrangements in place with Japan. An export licence was granted on 11 November 1997 for the export of up to 50kg of recycled low enriched uranium powder to the Republic of Korea for research and development on nuclear fuel. A shipment of 43.7kg of nuclear fuel containing reprocessed uranium was exported under this licence by BNFL to South Korea for use in the Hanaro research reactor at Daeduk in 1998.
In November 2004, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported, in a confidential report, that quantities of nuclear material produced over a 20-year period by South Korea as part of nuclear experiments were not significant but that the activities and the failure by South Korea to declare them were.
The International Atomic Energy Agency decided not to refer the issue of South Korea’s past experiments with nuclear materials to the United Nations Security Council. In a chairman’s statement, the IAEA expressed its “serious concerns,” and the matter was brought to a close with the agency demanding South Korea’s continued cooperation on issues such as additional inspections. The IAEA’s decision not to refer the case to the UN Security Council has caused suspicions over the nation’s nuclear experimentation to subside. It is fortunate that South Korea’s nuclear transparency has been recognized by the international community. However, the fact that the matter appeared as a central concern in the IAEA board of governors’ meeting has dealt a serious blow to South Korea’s national image. The nation now faced many additional costs of restoring and re-building trust with the international community on the peaceful use of atomic energy.
The chairman’s statement pointed out South Korea’s failure to report nuclear materials test was a violation of its nuclear safeguards agreement, but commended the nation for giving “active cooperation” to IAEA inspectors and taking “corrective measures” thereafter.
The chairman’s statement officially put an end to the so-called South Korean nuclear case, with no referral to the Security Council. Although additional inspections are scheduled on some unresolved minor issues, South Korea is now off the IAEA hook.
Seoul acknowledged in early September 2004 that its scientists extracted or enriched small amounts of plutonium and uranium, two key ingredients of nuclear bombs, in 1982 and 2000 without government knowledge. Seoul officials repeatedly stressed the experiments were one-off, laboratory-scale incidents, and not part of any arms program. The 1982 experiment produced 0.7 gram of plutonium with an average enrichment level of 98 percent. As it later became subject to report with the effectuation of the Additional Protocol, the government gave a belated report on the experiment. However, the situation worsened as several additional facts became unveiled back to back 0.2 gram of uranium enriched to an average 10.2 percent in 2000 the production of uranium metal in 1982, part of which was later used in nuclear enrichment experiments and chemical enrichment tests between 1979 and 1981.
Some foreign media reported the so-called “four suspicions” under the title, “weapons-grade uranium enrichment,” and exaggerated the mere lab tests as clandestine nuclear weapons development. South Korea, which has declared its commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, has taken a leading role in worldwide nuclear non-proliferation efforts. As such, it has exerted great efforts to avoid referral to the Security Council and promote its nuclear transparency. Thanks to the efforts, the UN nuclear watchdog closed the case with the chairman’s statement as its rigorous inspections proved that the quantities of nuclear material involved have not been significant and that to date there is no indication that the undeclared experiments have continued. South Korea’s assertion that they were purely for academic purposes has been accepted by the IAEA. As the statement said, the global community was suspicious of South Korea, not because of its nuclear experiments, but because it tried to hide them – an admittedly grave violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Whatever reason was behind keeping the experiments secret, the nation should have reported them immediately after they took place to the IAEA, as required for all NPT members. Seoul recognized the mistake and belatedly made a full report on the past tests upon the effectuation of the Additional Protocol. It is criticized that the government’s insufficient skill at atomic diplomacy also played a part in allowing the issue to deteriorate. Had the nuclear experiment issue been submitted to the Security Council, South Korea would have been stamped as a nation under suspicion of developing nuclear weapons. The incident has taught the nation a valuable lesson.
So far, only five nations had cases discussed by the IAEA board of governors. Four of the five cases, except the on-going Iranian case, were referred to the Security Council. The South Korean case - closed with only a chairman’s statement – is an exception to the rule. It is a diplomatic coup and at the same time an international acknowledgement of the nation’s full cooperation with the agency in inspecting its nuclear activities.
As the nation has emerged relatively “unscathed” from the ordeal, it is now obliged to faithfully and strictly respect international nuclear obligations under any circumstances. The government must take advantage of this opportunity to raise the level of South Korea’s nuclear transparency and win back trust from not only the IAEA but also the rest of the global community. The nation is expected to make further efforts to support nuclear nonproliferation and seek the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
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