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Arthur I. Cyr: South Korea’s nuclear challenge

Updated: December 10, 2012 6:25AM



Once again, the Korea peninsula is the focus of concern about nuclear developments. This time, however, attention is directed to South Korea’s nuclear power program, not North Korea’s primitive, but alarming, nuclear weapon development efforts.

The government of the Republic of Korea has shut down several nuclear reactors after safety certificates for some of their parts were found to be forged. Officials have been quick to minimize any potential danger resulting from the situation. The parts involved were fuses and switches, not components more directly engaged with radioactive material.

Nevertheless, public anxiety and criticism has spread rapidly, and is understandable. The Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan is a scary recent memory. Additionally, the violations came to light only as a result of an inside tip, not through official inspections and protocols.

Moreover, South Korea has given high priority to developing a global nuclear export industry. Several years ago, Korean firms won a $20 billion contract to build four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates.

South Korea plans to build 80 nuclear power reactors worldwide, worth an estimated $400 billion, by 2030. This would place the ROK on a par with Russia, and just behind France — the world leader in nuclear power export — and the U.S. Government officials describe nuclear power as a foreign trade high priority, along with automobiles, semiconductors and shipbuilding.

The unfolding Korean nuclear scandal doubtless will have regional and global impact. Today, any major production disruption in principal industries has immediate ripple effects. In Japan, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and associated Fukushima nuclear plant accident, significantly disrupted global auto production, especially by hard-hit Toyota.

South Korea’s problem occurs at a bad time. Last May, a Beijing summit brought together government officials from China, Japan and Korea to negotiate a new free trade agreement, and sign an initial accord on promotion, facilitation and protection of investment. This should further Asia’s role as principal exporter of, as well as magnet, for capital. The agreement will also encourage better protection of intellectual property.

At the same time, diplomatic moves by the United States regarding Northeast Asia should mitigate political fallout from Seoul’s nuclear mishap. At the global Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul in March, President Obama emphasized the priority of defending South Korea.

Appropriately, he visited the demilitarized zone which divides the two Koreas. The Korean War of 1950-53 made the Cold War a global conflict, and there is still no formal peace treaty between the two sides.

That war’s successful defense of the South from North Korean invasion was carried out under United Nations authority. South Korea ended the war as one of the poorest nations in the world. Per capita income was below even destitute Burma.

South Korea now is one of the largest economies in the world, with a stunning record of rapid industrial and commercial progress. The nation also has achieved representative government, with turbulent, but effective political democracy.

Today, the UN is led by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, an accomplished South Korean diplomat. The affiliated World Bank is led by Jim Yong Kim, formerly president of Dartmouth College, who was born in Seoul.

Past quality problems in the Korean auto and electronics industries were solved rapidly, and the same no doubt will happen in the nuclear power sector. South Korea’s growing global leadership provides solid evidence for this confidence.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenoahsa, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War”



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