U.S. partners agree to build two light-water atomic reactors for North Korea

The United States and its partners on Tuesday dealt the death blow to a multinational project to build two light-water atomic reactors for North Korea to entice it into dismantling its nuclear weapons program. The decade-old light-water reactor project had been mothballed for the last two years, kept barely alive in case North Korea showed signs of resuming International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and liquidating its ambitious self-proclaimed nuclear weapons program.

The New York City-based Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) did not issue any formal statement at the end of a two-day session of executive board meetings Tuesday.

But the U.S. delegate, Ambassador Joseph DiTrani, told members of the media afterward that the board members -- the United States, South Korea, Japan and European Union -- had reached consensus on the "termination" of the light-water reactor project, KEDO spokesman Brian Kremer confirmed.

DiTrani said that the KEDO executive board was "recessed" and would meet again before the end of the month to consult on financial and legal issues.

A firm decision on KEDO's future was due as key loans and preservation and maintenance contracts, notably with prime South Korean contractor Korean Electric Power Co., expire Nov. 30. 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 United States, Russian, China and Japan ended Nov. 11.

"There's no surprise here for North Korea. They've been setting up their obstacles" to this anticipated setback for weeks, said Charles Kartman, the American who was executive director of KEDO from 2001 until this August.

Both sides seem dug into their diplomatic trenches, ready for a long siege. At the end of the fourth round of six-way talks in September, North Korea pledged in principle to disarm but added the postscript that it would need light-water reactors to provide electricity before it did so. Fulfilling that demand would postpone effective disarmament for several years.

At a summit of Asian and Pacific leaders last week in South Korea, President George W. 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 program." Outside the six-way talks, each side is utterly at cross-purposes. The United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China want the Korean Peninsula denuclearized.

Meanwhile, North Korea says it is escalating its nuclear weapons development program, the problem that spiked both Korean crises in recent years, in 1993-1994 and again in 2002 through today.

Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who visited North Korea in January 2004 and again last August, said he believes Pyongyang is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons and is working on finishing its 50-megawatt Yongbyon research reactor, which could multiply plutonium production tenfold.

A shutdown of Yongbyon reactor in 1989 and reactor slowdowns in 1990-1991 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 United States and North Korea close to war in 1994.

A bilateral nuclear inspection accord and deal to build two monitored light-water reactors cooled tensions; this led to the KEDO project. Robert Gallucci, the special ambassador who negotiated the U.S.-North Korean deal that led to the KEDO program, has said the United States feared in the 1990s that if Yongbyon is finished it could churn out enough plutonium to make up to 30 nuclear weapons a year, reports the AP. I.L.

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