Reactor Suspension Extended; North Korea Nuclear Talks Stall

Paul Kerr

With six-party talks designed to resolve a two-year-old North Korean nuclear crisis stuck in limbo, the United States, Japan, and South Korea have opted to renew the year-long construction freeze of two nuclear reactors promised to Pyongyang as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The executive board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), charged with implementing the agreement, announced Nov. 26 that it will extend its suspension of the project. The Agreed Framework diffused an earlier crisis over Pyongyang’s plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. It called for North Korea to suspend operation of its graphite-moderated nuclear reactor, as well as the construction of two larger reactors, in return for two light-water nuclear reactors (LWRs) and 500,000 metric tons of heavy-fuel oil from KEDO as well as other benefits. It is more difficult to use LWRs to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

KEDO’s board—which is comprised of the United States, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union—said it would continue to suspend construction of the reactors for another year, beginning Dec. 1. The suspension first took effect Dec.1, 2003. The board had suspended the fuel oil shipments in November 2002 following the U.S. announcement that North Korea had admitted to having a prohibited uranium-based nuclear program. (See ACT, December 2003.)

The announcement came at a time of diplomatic uncertainty, with Pyongyang indicating that it was still assessing President George W. Bush’s second-term plans. Pyongyang “intends to follow with patience the course of policy-shaping by the second-term Bush administration,” according to a Dec. 14 statement from Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

In September, North Korea refused to attend a round of talks, and no further discussions have been scheduled. Since then, the other members, including the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, have continued diplomatic efforts to induce North Korea to return to the talks, including Nov. 30 and Dec. 3 low-level U.S.-North Korean meetings in New York. The talks, however, appear to have made little progress.

Whether reactor construction will ever resume is unclear. The KEDO statement 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 has repeatedly stated that it does not want the project revived. The United States did not fund KEDO’s administrative budget in fiscal year 2004 and did not request funds for fiscal year 2005.

For now, KEDO will continue “the preservation and maintenance work” associated with the project, the statement said.

Even if the reactor project is terminated, however, KEDO might still have a future. A Bush administration official told Arms Control Today in June that the organization could play a role in implementing a U.S. proposal which was presented during the last round of six-party talks held that month. Part of the U.S. proposal would provide incentives for North Korea to freeze and then dismantle its nuclear facilities, including the formulation of proposals to provide Pyongyang with non-nuclear energy assistance. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

North Korea has still not given a formal response to the U.S. offer. Instead, KCNA has continued to issue statements blaming the United States for the stalemate and reiterating North Korean complaints that the United States has a “hostile policy” to bring down the regime. (See ACT, December 2004.)

Perhaps attempting to address North Korea’s concerns, Bush and several U.S. officials reiterated in December that Washington does not intend to overthrow the North Korean regime but rather wants Pyongyang’s leadership to change its behavior.

Secretary of State Colin Powell further dismissed reports Dec. 3 that the North Korean government has become increasingly unstable, emphasizing that the United States wanted to continue the six-party talks.

Washington has repeatedly said that it has no intention of attacking North Korea, but the Bush administration’s North Korea policy has been characterized by disagreements about the correct mix of pressure and engagement. (See ACT, July/August 2004.) The June proposal offers a provisional multilateral security guarantee that U.S. officials have said could serve as the basis for a future permanent peace agreement on the Korean peninsula.