KEDO Suspends Construction of Nuclear Reactors

Paul Kerr

In the latest move in the ongoing standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Corporation (KEDO) has suspended construction of two light-water nuclear reactors (LWRs) it was charged with providing to Pyongyang under the 1994 Agreed Framework. KEDO’s Executive Board announced Nov. 21 that it would suspend construction of the two reactors for one year beginning Dec. 1. The suspension is in response to Pyongyang’s failure to meet “the conditions necessary for continuing the…project,” according to a statement from KEDO’s Executive Board, which is comprised of the United States, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union. The announcement came as the United States continued to consult with its allies on the terms and timetable for an anticipated second round of six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

The decision to suspend the project represents a compromise between the United States and the other board members. The United States had pushed to end the project altogether, but South Korea, which is funding and building the reactors along with Japan, favored a suspension, citing public support, its financial investment, and the need to continue the project if it becomes part of a settlement with North Korea. North Korea has demanded for some time that the reactors be completed as part of a settlement to the nuclear crisis. (See ACT, October 2003.) Japan has been less vocal about the rationale for its decision, but both Seoul and Tokyo have supported greater engagement with North Korea than Washington has.

Whether reactor construction will ever resume is unclear. KEDO said the project’s future “will be assessed and decided by the Executive Board before the expiration of the suspension period,” but the Bush administration believes there is “no future for the project,” Department of State spokesman Adam Ereli said Nov. 5.

KEDO indicated that the organization would continue some of its duties. “The suspension process will require preservation and maintenance both on-site and off-site. KEDO continues to consult with [North Korea] in this process,” according to the statement. The United States has not requested funding for KEDO’s administrative budget for fiscal year 2004.

The United States set up KEDO to implement the reactor project and supply 500,000 metric tons of heavy-fuel oil each year to North Korea as part of the Agreed Framework between the two countries. The Agreed Framework defused a tense standoff following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) discovery that Pyongyang had been diverting spent fuel from its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors for a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. It is more difficult to use LWRs to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

In exchange for the reactors and fuel oil, North Korea agreed to freeze its operating five-megawatt nuclear reactor, along with two others under construction and their related facilities. The agreement also provided for the storage and monitoring of the reactors’ spent fuel, as well as its eventual removal. The first reactor was originally scheduled to be completed by 2003, but construction had fallen far behind schedule.

The decision to suspend the reactor project comes just more than a year after KEDO suspended shipments of heavy-fuel oil in reaction to U.S. claims that, during an October meeting with a U.S. delegation, North Korea admitted to having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Urnium enrichment can also be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, December 2002.)

Pyongyang responded to the fuel shipments suspension by restarting its plutonium reactor and announcing its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korea has since claimed it has completed reprocessing the spent fuel and implied that it is using it to construct nuclear weapons. It is not known whether either claim is accurate. (See ACT, November 2003.)

North Korea’s initial response to KEDO’s most recent decision was more restrained. Reacting to a Nov. 4 KEDO announcement that the board was considering suspending the project, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman argued Nov. 6 that KEDO should compensate North Korea for the reactors and said North Korea would “never allow” KEDO to remove “all the [reactor project’s] equipment, facilities, materials and technical documents.”

Ereli told reporters Nov. 6 that North Korea is obligated to allow KEDO to remove these items but did not say how the United States would respond to North Korean interference.

Next Round of Talks

Meanwhile, participants in the August six-party talks held in Beijing continued efforts to reach consensus on a date and agenda for another round of talks.

President George W. Bush said in October that the United States is willing to provide a written, multilateral assurance that the United States will not attack North Korea. However, the U.S. proposal is still being developed in consultation with the other participants. A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman told Agence France Presse Nov. 22 that Washington and Seoul are “discussing detailed wording” of a security proposal, but the discussions are in the “early stages.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan hinted at the agenda for the next round of talks, saying Nov. 18 that it will focus on “North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program and a multilateral security guarantee for the North.”

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman repeated Nov. 16 that Pyongyang is willing to consider Bush’s idea. North Korea had previously demanded a formal nonaggression treaty, claiming it fears a U.S. attack, but softened that demand following Bush’s statement.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman also suggested Nov. 16 that Pyongyang could be flexible in its previous demands that the two sides take “simultaneous actions” to implement any agreement. North Korea has resisted the idea of dismantling its nuclear facilities before the United States takes any actions—a previous U.S. demand—because it fears Washington will pocket any concessions. The United States has also signaled flexibility on this point, but that flexibility appears limited to North Korea’s demand for a security assurance. A State Department official stated Nov. 20 that the United States would not address other North Korean demands until Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear programs.

In addition to a security assurance, Pyongyang has also called on the United States to normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, resume the suspended fuel-oil shipments, and increase food aid, as well as complete the reactor project.