Reports that South Korean scientists secretly — and unbeknown to the government — conducted experiments to enrich uranium are another blow to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. News of the tests is proof that nuclear standards have to be toughened and that the Additional Protocol needs to become mandatory for Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories. Most importantly, Seoul must fully disclose what happened four years ago, and end all doubts and suspicions about the country’s nuclear program, capabilities and intentions.

Two weeks ago, Seoul notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that scientists working at a government laboratory had enriched uranium to amounts far beyond the levels needed for energy production. According to Seoul, four years ago scientists used lasers to enrich less than a gram of uranium. The government said that it was a one-off experiment, using equipment that was intended for other purposes, and which was subsequently destroyed because of radioactive contamination. The government first became aware of the experiment in June and reported it to the IAEA last month. International nuclear inspectors have already visited South Korea to look into the claims and will continue their investigation.

Seoul denies that it has or had a nuclear-weapons research program or a uranium-enrichment effort. One South Korean nuclear expert said other experts “would probably laugh” at claims the experiment was a step toward building nuclear weapons.

No one is laughing. The ramifications of this development are very disturbing. Even if there was no intent to build a weapon, the tests are likely to have violated South Korea’s obligations under the NPT and the 1991 North-South Joint Declaration on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, which included a pledge not to enrich nuclear fuel.

North Korea is likely to use the news to justify its own nuclear-weapons program. Although North Korean statements that it intends to develop such weapons differentiate the two situations, Pyongyang could argue that its neighbor’s experiments justify a similar uranium-enrichment program. That will make progress in the six-party talks increasingly difficult.

At a minimum, the IAEA will have to make a full report on the experiments and should take the case to the United Nations Security Council, as is required by any violation of NPT commitments. Anything less will open the door to charges of discrimination by Pyongyang and discourage North Korea from making a full disclosure of its nuclear efforts.

Iran is also alleged to possess a clandestine nuclear program, of which uranium enrichment is a key component. Like Seoul, Tehran denies that it has nuclear-weapons ambitions. Again, a failure by the IAEA to sanction Seoul for its tests would give Iran the opening it needs to pursue its own nuclear efforts. Plainly, Seoul has to be as transparent as possible, providing the IAEA with all information, thereby setting an example for other nations and precluding any charges of discrimination on the part of the U.N. agency. Anything less than full cooperation and disclosure will cripple international efforts to rein in the proliferation efforts of other governments.

The revelations could have an impact beyond their “demonstration effect.” News that Seoul took steps toward developing an indigenous nuclear-weapons capability — whether intended or not — gives other nations a rationale for pursuing their own weapons programs. Nuclear dominoes may start to fall. North Korea is likely to argue that it must match any South Korean capability. This also underscores the significance of a thorough and public IAEA investigation.

Tokyo has expressed faith in Seoul’s statements about the country’s long-term intentions. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda called the experiments regrettable but added that “We don’t think it was a government policy to develop nuclear arms.” Nevertheless, the revelations will encourage nuclear advocates in Japan — and elsewhere — to pursue a similar course.

If there is a bright spot in the surprising news, it is that Seoul confessed. It was motivated to act because the experiments would have become known under the terms of the Additional Protocol of the NPT, which it signed in February and which gives IAEA inspectors the right to conduct more intrusive inspections than those permitted by the NPT itself. In other words, the Additional Protocol appears to have worked as intended, and made it harder to hide clandestine nuclear programs. That is encouraging, but the international community must now push to make the Additional Protocol required rather than optional. And while Seoul should be applauded for coming forward, it should also be shamed for insufficient control over its nuclear program. Rogue nuclear experiments are nothing to laugh at.

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