In an apparent break with Washington, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young is throwing his support behind North Korea's demand for access to nuclear energy.
Pyongyang made the demand during the recent six-country talks in Beijing aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programs. On Thursday, Mr. Chung told a South Korean interviewer civilian nuclear plants should be allowed as the North's "natural right."
Disagreement over the demand was a key issue when negotiators from the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia called a three-week recess of the nuclear talks.
Mr. Chung's comments come less than 24 hours after Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top U.S. delegate to the talks, said the United States opposed any nuclear facilities in North Korea, because of the North's past behavior. "This is a country that had trouble keeping peaceful energy peaceful," he said.
The United States and a consortium of nations previously began building light water nuclear reactors in North Korea under a 1994 agreement that froze Pyongyang's plutonium-producing reactor in Yongbyon. Experts say it is far more difficult to produce weapons material from the light water reactors.
However, in 2002, the United States says North Korean officials admitted pursuing a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program, after they were confronted with U.S. evidence of the program. Within months, North Korea ejected international nuclear inspectors and withdrew from the global nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Pyongyang has said it possesses nuclear weapons and plans to make more.
Vice Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, South Korea's top delegate to the nuclear talks, says the North should eventually have the right to a civilian nuclear program - but disarmament must come first.
Mr. Song says the details of a peaceful nuclear program for the North would have to be worked out later - after the North has clearly ended its weapons programs.
Peter Beck, Northeast Asia Director of the non-governmental International Crisis Group, said as a practical matter, North Korea is unlikely to be running a civilian nuclear program any time soon. "I think there's a recognition in most if not all capitals that a peaceful nuclear program is not in the cards for North Korea, until they have complied with the inspections that would be necessary to verify they're not cheating, which will be years from now," he said.
The United States is supporting South Korea's proposal to transfer electricity directly to the North. South Korea said it would fund that plan with money it originally earmarked for building the light water reactors - an indication Seoul had delayed, if not dismissed, plans to provide the North with nuclear power.