Holding the Government Accountable

News Roundup: Tensions Build as South Korea’s Nuclear Research is Made Public

by Matthew La Rocque

South Korean Uranium Enrichment

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disclosed on Sept. 2, 2004, that South Korea had admitted to enriching small amounts of uranium. The South Korean government claims the uranium was enriched by scientists in a government-approved experiment in 2000, purely to fulfill speculative curiosity. “This was an academic exercise, nothing more. We have no ambition beyond science. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong,” said Chang In Soon, president of the government’s Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute, who personally authorized the experiment. Given that South Korea’s nuclear program supplies more than 40 percent of the country’s nuclear energy, it is not unreasonable for South Korea to pursue research involving uranium. A red flag remains however, as more than four years have passed since the research occurred. Waiting such a long time is considered a major violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which demands that any uranium-enrichment activities be disclosed to the IAEA immediately.

Following receipt of this information, a team of IAEA inspectors was sent to South Korea to investigate. The team’s findings are expected to be discussed at the next meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors starting Sept. 13, 2004.

Despite the small amount of uranium actually enriched (0.2 grams), some experts say that the level of enrichment originally reported (at 80 percent) would more likely be used for nuclear weapons. Further supporting this claim is the suspicious method of enrichment used – an expensive laser technology. "Given its lack of commercial application, the only conclusion you can reach is that any nation pursuing this technology is doing it for military uses," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute. The method’s expense has also raised contentions that the South Korean government had funded the program, but officials at South Korea's Foreign Ministry maintain that the tests were not "government-sanctioned."

The Implications of South Korea’s Program on North Korea and Others

North Korea has not yet responded to the IAEA’s disclosure about South Korea, but most observers expect North Korea to exploit the situation to gain an upper hand in its nuclear standoff in the on-going six-party talks with the United States and others. If South Korea, which is a member of the NPT and actively opposed to a North Korean nuclear program, is eventually implicated with nuclear military ambitions, Pyongyang could use the duplicity to justify its nuclear aspirations.

Such a revelation could also cause problems for the United States, which would have to choose between pressing their South Korean ally to dismantle such programs, or adopting a questionable double-standard that some accuse the United States of employing for Israel against Iran. The nations currently involved in nonproliferation negotiations also worry that talks will be hampered by the recent events in South Korea.

Many of these anxieties may not come to pass. Aside from this most recent incident, South Korea has generally made a commendable effort to abide by the mandates of the NPT and other arms control regimes. For the time being, however, it would appear that the ball presently resides in North Korea’s court.


David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “South Koreans Say Secret Work Refined Uranium,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 2004.

“North Korea relishes Seoul 's embarrassment over nuclear activities,” Agence France Presse, Sept. 5, 2004.

Jonathan Marcus, “High Stakes at North Korea Talks,” BBC News, June 25, 2004.

James Brooke, “South Korean Scientist Calls Uranium Test 'Academic’,” New York Times, Sept. 7, 2004.

Anthony Faiola, “South Korean Official Attempts to Ease Nuclear Concerns,” Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2004.

IAEA Press Release, “IAEA Inspection Team Conducting Investigation in South Korea,” Sept. 2, 2004.