SKorea to host next nuclear summit in 2012

President Lee Myung-bak has pulled off another diplomatic coup with the announcement that South Korea will host the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. Seoul is already slated to host the G-20 summit in November of this year.

Lee’s bid received active support from the Obama administration, host of this year’s nuclear summit. That support reflects the improved relationship between Seoul and Washington over the past several years after a period of strained ties during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. In fact, it was the U.S. that officially suggested that Seoul host the next summit, although there was certainly prior consultation on that between the two allies.

The announcement also underscores South Korea’s status as a front-line state in the struggle against nuclear proliferation. North Korea has been aggressively developing plutonium and uranium based nuclear weapons programs since the fall of the Soviet Union in early 1991. Pyongyang suspend plutonium production from 1994 to 2002 under the 1994 agreed framework with Washington, although it continued work on its uranium and warhead delivery programs. It conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

In contrast, South Korea has been a model for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It has been operating nuclear power plants for three decades without accident and gets two-fifths of its electricity from that nuclear energy.

High on Seoul’s nuclear agenda is getting Washington’s to reinterpret the 1974 atomic trade agreement between the allies to allow South Korea to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Seoul argues that it is reaching the limit of its ability to store nuclear waste and would like to become more energy self-reliant by being able to reuse nuclear fuel. It claims that it will use pyroprocessing; a technique that is more efficient than traditional reprocessing methods and does not produce weapons-grade plutonium. Washington’s support of Seoul’s hosting the 2012 summit may be a side that the Obama administration is coming around to Seoul’s view.