US, partners to end N Korean reactor project

North Korea’s demand that it be given light-water nuclear reactors before it would open up to atomic inspections and disarmament got a sharp rebuff as the partners in an energy consortium agreed with United States policy and terminated the reactor-building project.

It took almost two years for Washington to wear down the resistance of its partners in the New York-based Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (Kedo), with South Korea finally giving up the partly built light-water reactor last summer. Japan and the European Union had already sided with the US “no carrot” policy.

On Tuesday, the executive board of Kedo concluded a two-day private meeting, and the US, South Korean, Japanese and EU delegates issued no formal statement.

But on his way out of the building’s New York office, US ambassador Joseph DiTrani said the Kedo partners had reached consensus on the “termination” of the light-water reactor project, Kedo spokesperson Brian Kremer confirmed.

The decade-old light-water reactor project had been mothballed for the past two years, kept barely alive in case North Korea showed signs of resuming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and liquidating its ambitious self-proclaimed nuclear weapons programme.

But with a November 30 deadline looming on major contracts underlying the $4,6-billion project—notably to the prime South Korean contractor, the Korean Electric Power Company—time, money and political will had all evaporated.

Only last week, at a summit of Asian and Pacific leaders in South Korea, US President George Bush said: “We’ll consider the light-water reactor at the appropriate time. The appropriate time is after they have verifiably given up their nuclear weapons, and/or programme.”

Delicate moment

The decision comes at a particularly delicate moment in the fitful series of six-nation talks aimed at disarming North Korea.

The fifth round of talks among the two Koreas, the US, Russian, China and Japan ended on November 11 without signs of major progress.

Charles Kartman, the American who was executive director of Kedo from 2001 until this August, when the Bush administration pushed him into retirement, said North Korea must have anticipated Kedo’s demise.

“There’s no surprise here for North Korea.
They’ve been setting up their obstacles” for weeks and in September had revived their demand for the reactors, Kartman said.

At the end of the fourth round of six-way talks in September, North Korea pledged in principle to disarm, but maintained that it would need light-water reactors to provide electricity beforehand.

Fulfilling that demand would postpone effective disarmament for several years.

Weapons programme

Meanwhile, North Korea says it is escalating its nuclear weapons-development programme, the problem that spiked both Korean crises in recent years—in 1993/94 and again from 2002 until today.

A shutdown of the Yongbyon research reactor in 1989 and reactor slowdowns in 1990/91 are believed to have yielded enough plutonium to build two or three bombs, a situation that the Clinton administration considered so threatening that it brought the US and North Korea close to war in 1994.

Robert Gallucci, the special ambassador who negotiated the US-North Korean deal that led to the Kedo programme, has said the US feared in the 1990s that if Yongbyon is finished it could churn out enough plutonium to make up to 30 nuclear weapons a year.

A 1994 bilateral nuclear inspection accord and deal to build two monitored light-water reactors cooled tensions and led to the Kedo project.

Last May, North Korea’s foreign ministry said the country had the ability to harvest still more weapons-grade plutonium and “bolster its nuclear arsenal”.

“You have to assume the North Koreans have weaponised the plutonium,” Kartman said.

Under the agreement that formed the Kedo project, North Korea was to abandon nuclear weapons development and allow access by IAEA inspectors, in exchange for 500 000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil annually from the US to meet its energy shortage until it got the two light-water atomic power plants, built and paid for primarily by South Korea and Japan, with some EU funding.

The programme was frozen in 2002 after the US claimed North Korea had embarked on a second, secret highly enriched uranium weapons-development programme, and said that North Korea had unexpectedly confirmed it in private talks. Evidence to back the claim has never been publicly disclosed.

Kartman believes that the Bush administration was determined to abolish the 1994 bilateral US-North Korea accord, known as the Agreed Framework, and Kedo along with it, so “everything was thrown off the back of the sled”.

Communications channels were in place that could have allowed the US to bring North Korea into talks about the highly enriched uranium programme in 2002 rather than adopt an overly confrontational tone, Kartman said.

“In my mind, the right thing to have done in 2002 was to go back to the North Koreans and ask them if they wanted to preserve the Agreed Framework,” Kartman said, but the US pursued what he called the “clumsy” strategy of direct confrontation.

Bush named North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as the triumvirate of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech in 2002.—Sapa-AP

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