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International Nuclear Reactor Project for North Korea Looking Increasingly Uncertain - 2003-06-30

The future of an international project to build two safe nuclear energy reactors in North Korea looks increasingly uncertain amid a stand-off over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. Charles Kartman, the head of KEDO, the U.S. led group sponsoring the project, met with South Korean officials Monday to discuss whether to proceed. Charles Kartman, executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization or KEDO, met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan in Seoul Monday. The two men discussed the fate of a five-billion dollar project to build two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea. Details of their meeting were not disclosed.

But when reporters asked Mr. Kartman whether the reactor construction will stop, he said that the governments involved have yet to reach consensus.

The mammoth construction project - backed by the United States, the European Union, Japan and South Korea - is part of a 1994 agreement to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons and provide the impoverished nation with energy.

The reactors, if they are completed, would provide electricity but would not make material which could be diverted for nuclear bombs, as can North Korea's older Russian-built reactors. Under the 1994 pact, North Korea, in return, froze its nuclear facilities that were part of a suspected weapons program.

However, it has recently restarted them and experts believe they could yield nuclear weapons within months.

U.S. officials say Pyongyang admitted in October to running a secret nuclear program. International concerns have been mounting ever since and diplomacy has not persuaded North Korea to adhere to its signed nuclear non-proliferation agreements.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, said the next step may be for Washington to push KEDO to freeze work on the nuclear reactors. "My guess is that if the North Koreans do not mend their ways, if they do not decide to engage in the dismantlement of their weapons program, that it is unlikely that the United States would support the completion of those reactors," he said.

South Korea has so far taken a more cautious stance on freezing the reactor project, as has Japan.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi says more dialogue is needed and that it is too soon to stop construction. Additional consultations between members of the KEDO consortium are expected this week.

Despite the tensions, North and South Korea broke ground Monday for a joint industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea. Nine-hundred South Korean companies have applied to build plants in the park. They hope to benefit from cheap labor in the Communist North and eventually gain access to its untapped markets.

Construction is expected to get underway in the first half of 2004.