By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (Yonhap) -- As South Korea and the United States struggle to move forward talks on bilateral nuclear energy cooperation, concerns are growing that the issue may take a toll on the results of an upcoming summit between President Park Geun-hye and President Barack Obama.
Revising the civil nuclear cooperation agreement is one of the most urgent and thorniest issues between the two nations.
The so-called 123 agreement, signed in 1974, expires in March next year. Given the time for domestic procedures, Seoul and Washington need to reach a deal by the first half of this year.
"It is a really important and serious issue," an informed source said, requesting anonymity. "But it should not be linked with summit talks between Park and Obama."
Many expect Park and Obama to hold their first summit in Washington in May or June, when they will discuss a joint strategy on North Korea and a vision for partnerships on other bilateral and global issues.
"There is a shared view that the leaders had better meet each other before a G-20 summit (to be held in Russia) in September," the source said.
The Park administration apparently places a top priority on producing an agreement on the nuclear pact at an early date.
In a January meeting in Seoul with an inter-agency U.S. delegation led by then-Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, Park emphasized the importance of a swift deal.
"The issue of the atomic energy pact may affect the timing of the first Park-Obama summit and overshadow other pending issues when it's held," the source said.
The current agreement on commercial nuclear cooperation bans South Korea from reprocessing nuclear waste from about two dozen reactors that use U.S.-supplied nuclear materials.
South Korea hopes to reprocess spent fuel and enrich uranium to meet the country's status as an atomic plant exporter. South Korean diplomats use the word "recycle" instead of "reprocess."
Seoul officials stress the 40-year-old deal does not meet South Korea's domestic demand and its stature as a nuclear plant exporter.
The Obama administration, however, takes a dim view of Seoul's push in light of Washington's nonproliferation campaign.
Washington is apparently worried about the possibility that South Korea's expansion of its nuclear program will create a domino effect.
U.S. officials also point out South Korea agreed not to "possess nuclear processing and uranium enrichment facilities" in the 1992 joint declaration with North Korea on the denuclearization of the peninsula.
Although North Korea has violated the declaration, South Korea's official stance is that the document remains in force.
Observers express skepticism that the U.S. government will make concessions in the nuclear energy cooperation talks with South Korea.
"The Park administration of South Korea needs to draw up a comprehensive game plan," another source said. "If the two sides fail to strike a deal by June, a temporary rollover can be an alternative. But South Korea can't wait for good."
Ultimately, it is a matter to be resolved between the Park and Obama administrations, added the source.
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