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Will North Korea Trade Nukes for Electricity?


This composite satellite image produced and released by NASA shows the night lights of North and South Korea, center, with Japan at right and China at left
South Korea has offered to supply electricity directly to North Korea - as an inducement for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs. Seoul's offer this month is widely viewed as one of the main factors that influenced North Korea to end its 13-month boycott of multinational nuclear disarmament talks. With the resumption of those talks just days away, major questions about the electricity proposal remain unanswered.

For decades, communist and impoverished North Korea has said it was pursuing nuclear technology, in part, as a source of energy. Last week, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young made an offer to the North, which could render its nuclear pursuit as unnecessary.

Mr. Chung says South Korea would transmit two million kilowatts of electricity to the North, if it gave up its nuclear capabilities.

That is the same amount of power which would have been generated by two light water nuclear reactors offered to the North as part of a 1994 deal for it to freeze and dismantle its plutonium-based nuclear plants - capable of producing weapons grade material. Construction on the light water reactors has been all but abandoned since 2002, when the United States confronted North Korea with evidence of a second, uranium-based weapons program.

North Korea only publicly admits to having a plutonium program - and now claims to have developed nuclear weapons as defense against a possible attack by its Cold War enemy, the United States.

Russia, Japan, the two Koreas, China and the United States are to meet for a fourth round of talks next week in Beijing, to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear capabilities in exchange for security guarantees and economic incentives.

This offer of electricity injects a new element into the negotiations.

South Korea - which is the strongest advocate of engaging Pyongyang through economic incentives - says it alone would bear the cost and logistical burden of transmitting its surplus electricity to North Korea.

It appears the offer was interesting enough to persuade North Korea to return to the talks after a 13-month boycott. But the question is will the offer be enough to get Pyongyang to dismantle all its nuclear programs?

Experts say North Korea would have a number of concerns. The biggest one seems to be that the plan does not provide for building electricity plants in North Korea - giving South Korea control over the flow of power.

International relations professor Kim Jae-chun, of Sogang University in Seoul, is skeptical North Korea will trade away its nuclear card on those terms. Mr. Kim says the only deal North Korea would possibly accept from the six-party talks is one, which explicitly rules out South Korea cutting off the flow of power for any reason.

South Korea expects the electrical transmission could be ready by 2008 but has not specified if all six parties must first concur that North Korea has verifiably disarmed before it turns on the switch.

It also remains unclear to what extent the South Korean government will seek legislative approval for its North Korean electricity plan. A heated debate on the government-run KBS radio network this week showed political support for the proposal is far from unanimous.

Chun Yu-ok, spokeswoman for the main conservative opposition party, accused the dominant Uri Party of President Roh Moo-hyun of not telling the full truth about costs of the program. She calls official estimates of one to $2 billion "nonsense."

Ms. Chun says a similar proposal made by the government of former president Kim Dae-jung said it could cost more than 10 billion dollars in costs-mainly for adapting North Korea's electrical wires to accept South Korea's differing standard of electricity. She says that proposal was reportedly set aside due to technical issues.

South Korea's energy minister has acknowledged more discussion is needed on the proposal, which he called Tuesday the "cost of peace." But Uri Party Spokesman Jun Byong-hun says all these concerns can be addressed.

Mr. Jun says South Korea has such a large electrical capacity, that there is nothing to worry about. He adds that a model for sending electricity to the North has already been established in the Northern city of Kaesong, where South Korea supports an industrial park.

Some electrical engineers are skeptical. Kim Nam-in, an engineer at Korea Energy Economics Institute, says North Korea's electrical infrastructure has decayed from decades of neglect.

Mr. Kim says the power grid in Pyongyang is still in fairly good condition, but warns costs for the South could skyrocket if it finds itself obligated to rewire large areas of its communist neighbor.

Technical concerns aside, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice consulted with officials in Seoul last week and called South Korea's proposal useful for its potential to address the North's energy needs. To the extent Seoul can integrate its initiative into a broader six-party agreement next week, experts agree the proposal could help spark movement toward a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue.

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