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How May Reactor Plan Affect Peace on Korean Peninsula? - 2002-04-09

North Korea has said it will resume talks with an international consortium that includes the United States on building twin nuclear power reactors for the impoverished communist nation. The multi-billion dollar power project is a key part of an agreement aimed at redirecting the North's nuclear weapons-capable program to safer uses of nuclear energy. North Korea was at the center of a diplomatic crisis in 1994. At issue was concern the reclusive country was building an atomic bomb. That sparked regional, and even global, fears and raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula that had not been felt since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

But the crisis subsided after Washington and Pyongyang signed an accord in October 1994 in which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program. In exchange, the United States promised to arrange for the construction of two modern light water reactors, which will produce less weapons grade plutonium fuel than North Korea's Soviet-era graphite reactors. The United States also agreed to supply North Korea with oil until the project is completed.

An international non-profit group, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), was set up to help carry out these two key provisions. Japan and South Korea, as founding KEDO members, are shouldering the lion's share of the reactors' cost, now estimated at between $4-6 billion, but the United States and 10 other countries provide support and financial assistance.

Yonsei University Politics Professor Lee Chung-min has said that in the years since KEDO was established, it has helped foster Pyongyang's dialogues with Seoul and Washington. "At the end of the day, North Korea desperately needs alternative energy supplies and they are not going to get them from anywhere in the world. So they may bluff, but finally they have to realize that this is basically for them. Nobody in the international community is going to help North Korea beyond what America, South Korea and Japan have already done," he said.

The reactors' construction has faced delays because of disputes between Pyongyang and KEDO. The two blame each other, but analysts say fault lies on both sides. Despite the bickering, excavation for the foundation of the plant is almost finished, and the concrete is slated to pour in August.

The resumption of talks with KEDO follows a series of diplomatic initiatives indicating Pyongyang's willingness to reconnect with the outside world. The North has had little contact with Seoul or Washington since President Bush took office in January 2001 and decided to review America's ties with the Stalinist state.

South Korea restarted the dialogue between the rival countries in early April sending a special envoy to Pyongyang. The emissary returned after four days with a message the North agreed to restart reunions between families separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula. The North Koreans also pledged to work on the construction of an inter-Koreas railway and to meet next month to discuss economic cooperation.

Pyongyang agreed to resume talks with KEDO even though it bitterly denounced President Bush for saying a month earlier he could not certify that North Korea was sticking to the 1994 agreement. The North also indicated to the South Korean envoy it wants to reopen wider talks with Washington. So far, the Bush administration said it is reserving judgment on Pyongyang's overtures until it hears directly from the capital. Moon Chung-in is a professor of international relations at Yonsei University. He notes North Korea has repeatedly said that it is keeping its side of the deal. He believes that reopening a dialogue with Washington is Pyongyang's best option.

"We have an important agenda here: the delivery of the light water reactors by KEDO is vital, and North Korea is obliged to comply with the safeguard inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Those are important issues which are intertwined. Therefore, in order to resolve these issues I think the United States and North Korea should talk to each other and KEDO and North Korea should engage in more productive discussions," Mr. Moon said.

The next obstacle standing in the way is Washington's insistence that the International Atomic Energy Agency start inspections of North Korea's nuclear facilities before key phases of the project are finished. This is in line with the original agreement, but the North is putting up resistance.

Few officials would predict when the twin reactors will be completed, but analysts say it could be as late as 2010, seven years behind schedule.