N. Korea Warns On Nuclear Freeze Halts DOE Cleanup at Yongbyon

May 1998

By Howard Diamond

Efforts disturbed by what it sees as a U.S. failure to live up to its side of the 1994 U.S. North Korean Agreed Framework, Pyongyang has frozen U.S. cleanup activities at its Yongbyon nuclear waste site, and threatened on May 7 to "open and readjust" its other frozen nuclear facilities. In an official statement, Pyongyang protested that Washington has not kept its side of the agreement by not easing economic sanctions on North Korea, and allowing delays in construction of the light-water reactors (LWRs) and shipments of heavy fuel oil mandated in the nuclear accord.

State Department spokesman James Rubin announced on May 13 that, as required by the nuclear agreement, North Korea's nuclear facilities remained frozen under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, but that U.S. efforts to safely store Pyongyang's plutonium-bearing spent fuel in Yongbyon had been halted. The Department of Energy (DOE) has packaged all of the nuclear fuel elements from the Yongbyon reactor in steel storage canisters and was near completing the cleanup of scraps and sludge when Pyongyang halted work on April 28. DOE has pulled its people out of North Korea and as of the end of May, cleanup operations had not resumed.

Rubin emphasized that the United States intends to meet its Agreed Framework obligations. However, by the end of May, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the U.S.-led international consortium implementing the Agreed Framework, had delivered only 130,000 of the annual half-million tons of heavy fuel oil. Under the current schedule for fuel deliveries, KEDO has until October 20 to meet this year's quota, leaving only five months to deliver the remaining 74 percent of the promised fuel. KEDO completed last year's deliveries two months late due mostly to its own financial troubles. (See ACT, November/December 1997.)

This year the United States is providing KEDO with $30 million of the approximately $65 million needed for fuel oil purchases, with another $10 million available for debt relief if other contributors can be found to pay off the rest of KEDO's $47 million debt. Since its creation in 1995, KEDO has been chronically short of money, and has been forced into a cycle of using current contributions to pay off outstanding debts instead of buying oil.

Pyongyang's threat was made one week after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright failed to persuade South Korea and Japan to help pay for the fuel oil deliveries. South Korea and Japan have committed themselves to paying 70 percent and $1 billion, respectively, of the $4.6 billion cost of building the two LWRs called for in the 1994 accord. Devaluation of the South Korean won has reduced KEDO's cost estimates of the LWR project by $600 million. Both countries, however, insist responsibility for the oil purchases rests with Washington.

Seoul and Tokyo want the United States to contribute about $500 million toward the LWR project, a position Washington has stoutly resisted. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on May 5 that Clinton administration officials, out of concern for congressional opposition, were only willing to offer a token $55 million for nuclear safety expenses. Talks among KEDO's Executive Board members about distributing the LWR project's costs will continue in June.