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US Expresses Regret Over North Korea Nuclear Power Plant Decision - 2002-12-13

The United States is expressing regret over North Korea's announced intention to re-activate a nuclear power plant shut down as part of a 1994 agreement with Washington. The move by Pyongyang would be a further unraveling of the "agreed framework" under which Pyongyang committed to stop its nuclear program.

Officials here say the North Korean decision is "regrettable" but they say the United States continues to seek a peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute with Pyongyang and will consult on an appropriate response with friends and allies

North Korea had announced earlier Thursday it was re-starting its Soviet-era nuclear power plant at Yongbyon, saying it was "compelled" to act because of an electricity shortage caused by the shut-off of Western fuel-oil shipments to the energy-starved country.

The U.S.-led KEDO consortium that administers the "agreed framework" decided to end the oil shipments last month after North Korea admitted to visiting U.S. envoy James Kelly in October that it had a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of the 1994 deal, under which it was to have ended its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Reopening the Yongbyon plant would be a further setback to hopes to salvage the framework. A State Department spokeswoman said move "flies in the face" of the international consensus that North Korea must fulfil its commitments, in particular dismantling its nuclear program.

She said North Korea's relations with the outside world "hinge" on the elimination of its nuclear weapons program and the next step must be for Pyongyang to dismantle its weapon program in a "visible and verifiable manner."

The seeming collapse of the "agreed framework" has been an unwelcome surprise for the Bush administration which, before the October revelation, had been readying an overture for better relations with Pyongyang. In a talk with reporters Thursday in Qatar, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said North Korea's policy moves are hard to explain:

"What you have is a very strange regime. If you recall within recent weeks, they met with the Americans in North Korea and said they didn't have any activities going on regarding highly enriched uranium. They then went to bed and came back on the next morning and said we do have them. So we have a behavioral pattern that, I think, has to be noted," he said.

At a Washington seminar Wednesday, Mr. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said the United States has no intention of bargaining with North Korea or offering inducements to convince it to live up to agreements and treaties it has already signed.

However, Mr. Kelly said if Pyongyang ended its nuclear program, a better relationship with the United States might become possible. Ultimately, he said the United States seeks friendship with the people of North Korea, but that to reach this goal, the North Korean government "must take the first step."

In its pronouncements Thursday, North Korea also said it wanted a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue. But it blamed Washington for the current state of affairs by, in its words, "utterly trampling" the terms and spirit of the "agreed framework," and by branding Pyongyang part of an "axis of evil," a reference to President Bush's State-of-the-Union address last January.