The long, slow process of killing a 12-year-old agreement to provide North Korea with a nuclear reactor has taken another step forward. The United States and South Korea have withdrawn their personnel from the project's location in the North. The project's partners still have to decide what to do with its equipment and how to pay the final costs of closing it down.
After a short boat trip from North Korea, 56 South Koreans and one American stepped ashore in South Korea Sunday.
They are the last of the workers who had spent the past three years maintaining a partially built nuclear reactor owned by the Korean Energy Development Organization, or KEDO. The United States formed KEDO along with South Korea, Japan and the European Union as part of a 1994 agreement to freeze North Korea's nuclear weapons programs in exchange for building two light-water nuclear reactors.
Light-water reactors do not produce material that can be easily used for nuclear weapons, unlike other types of reactors.
KEDO suspended work in 2003, soon after U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it was pursuing a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program. The executive board agreed in principle in November to terminate the project. North Korea reacted angrily to that decision and demanded the foreign workers leave the country.
Ahn Hong-jun, a senior South Korean executive who was overseeing the KEDO project, says he left with regrets. Mr. Ahn says his team feels a strong sense of attachment to the project, and feels sad to see it end this way. He says he believes North Korean officials probably feel the same way.
Yang Chang-seok, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, says Pyongyang did not permit the KEDO partners to take about $45 million worth of equipment from the facility.
Yang says Seoul will continue to consult with North Korea on returning the equipment left behind, because it is KEDO's property.
KEDO itself is now all but dead. However the members have not yet agreed on the formalities of dissolving its work.
The legal and financial steps of formally ending KEDO are expected to cost several hundred million dollars - mostly to compensate construction companies for having defaulted on contracts. South Korea, which has put up most of the one and a half billion dollars invested in the project, says the costs should be shared equally. The United States and Japan have not yet agreed to that.
North Korea has never publicly admitted to having a uranium weapons program. However, it says it has nuclear weapons and plans to build more. Pyongyang says the United States is still obligated to either build the reactors promised in 1994, or pay compensation. However, the communist country has said recently it will build its own light-water reactors, without outside help.
The dispute could be an obstacle to scheduling a new round of multinational talks aimed at persuading North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs.