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N. Korean Reactor Project May End

By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, Tuesday 4 November 2003; Page A22

The international consortium building two nuclear reactors to provide energy to North Korea is likely to agree today to suspend the project, effectively killing it, U.S. and Asian officials said yesterday.

Terminating the reactor project’centerpiece of a 1994 deal by the Clinton administration to freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities’has long been a goal of key members of the Bush administration. But the move has been resisted by its partners in the project, particularly South Korea, who argued that ending or even suspending it would needlessly rile North Korea and escalate the crisis over its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Construction of the light-water reactors thus has continued even though Pyongyang disclosed last year it had violated the Clinton accord, quit the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and announced it was building nuclear weapons. More than $1.4 billion has been spent pouring the concrete for the facilities and building housing and recreation facilities for hundreds of construction workers, although it never reached the stage where North Korea received sensitive equipment.

Officials from the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union, which form the executive board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Corp. (KEDO), have been meeting informally in New York since yesterday to discuss the suspension. The executive director of KEDO, Charles Kartman, will be directed to inform the North Koreans of the decision, which would be formally ratified at another meeting this year.

U.S. officials have agreed to settle for a one-year suspension to placate South Korean officials. But the Bush administration informed its partners that restarting the project a year from now would require the unanimous consent of the executive board’and the United States will not provide the necessary vote.

This ought to kill it, said Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a leading critic of the 1994 agreement. The heart may still be beating but there is no brain function.

Under that agreement, which froze a plutonium facility at Yongbyon, the United States supplied heavy fuel oil to North Korea to ease its pressing electrical needs and assisted in the construction of the light-water reactors. South Korea and Japan agreed to foot much of the bill for the reactors, which Clinton officials said were designed for peaceful use.

KEDO’s Web site proclaims it is promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. The site includes photos of the construction site at Kumho, on North Korea’s coast, and the elaborate facilities for construction workers, which include a golf range, restaurants and gymnasiums.

The White House signaled its determination to kill the project last month when it announced $3.7 million in administrative expenses for KEDO. Noting that no part of this money would be used for construction, the statement added, The members of the KEDO Executive Board will convene soon and the United States believes it should then agree formally to stop work on the LWR [light-water reactor] project.

The move to suspend the project comes shortly after North Korea agreed to attend another session of multinational talks to settle the nuclear crisis. Nevertheless, U.S. and Japanese officials pressed South Korea hard to finally agree to a suspension, officials said.

The original deal, reached shortly before Republicans took control of Congress, was fiercely attacked by conservatives, who argued the reactors could be diverted for military purposes. Some Clinton officials believed North Korea would collapse before the reactors were completed, and numerous deadlines were missed as the work proceeded slowly. When it came into power, the Bush administration was even less inclined to support the project.

Last October, after North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear project in violation of the 1994 agreement, the United States pressed allies to join it in suspending the fuel oil shipments. The United States also briefly seized a ship carrying North Korean missiles to Yemen. In response, North Korea evicted international weapons inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and pledged to build a nuclear arsenal.