- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

PYONGYANG, North Korea The government Thursday blamed U.S. delays in the construction of two atomic power plants for what it said was the worst power shortages in North Korea's history and hinted it would reopen a mothballed nuclear reactor if it is not compensated for its economic losses.
The issue, aired in a statement by Vice Premier Jo Chang-dok to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), seems to be of major concern among senior government officials and is likely to be raised when a top North Korean official visits Washington for a long-awaited meeting next month.
"There has never been such shortage of electricity as today in DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]," said Mr. Jo, who described the development as "recent." He did not elaborate on the shortages and no further official information was available.
However, visitors to the capital this week have noticed frequent power outages lasting as long as four hours. Factories on the main highway west of the city appeared idle. Regular visitors said the blackouts were worse than they have seen in the past.
One foreign resident living in Pyongyang said the blackouts have been continuing at least since early January in the capital and might be even worse in the countryside.
By comparison, "the number of power cuts during January, February and March last year was very few indeed," the resident said.
Even public buildings are without heat during functions attended by top governing party officials and many residents have been left in the cold during the harsh North Korean winter.
It is just the latest hardship to befall a people who since the mid-1990s have suffered from drought and floods that have contributed to a famine believed to have killed anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million.
Mr. Jo was vague about the impact of the power shortages on industry except to say that they kept the government "from meeting the growing need in all sectors of the economy, heavily hampering production and construction." Witnesses noted only light activity at the main port at Nampo.
Mr. Jo blamed the shortages "entirely" on U.S. failure to honor commitments under the so-called "Agreed Framework" of 1994, under which the West promised fuel oil and construction of two new reactors in exchange for the closure of North Korea's own nuclear power program, which the United States suspected was being used to produce nuclear weapons.
The new reactors were to have been completed by 2003 but construction has not yet begun and Mr. Jo said they were now unlikely to be finished until 2010 or even later.
Sighting "unreasonable U.S. delaying tactics," he said, "Washington has not honestly fulfilled its commitments… . The DPRK can no longer pin any hope on that construction nor can it remain a passive onlooker to it."
The mothballed North Korean reactor was controlled by graphite, and could easily produce weapons-grade plutonium as a byproduct.
The twin nuclear reactors to be built by an international consortium led by the United States, Japan and South Korea use modern "light-water" technology that makes it difficult to extract weapons fuel.
The consortium, named the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO), is also responsible for supplying 500,000 metric tons of fuel oil to North Korea until the reactors come on line.
"The United States and its partners in KEDO are working actively to meet all of its obligations under the Agreed Framework," said State Department spokesman James Foley.
"Since KEDO signed a turnkey project contract in December with the prime contractor for the light-water reactor project, construction can now proceed steadily," Mr. Foley said.
KEDO spokesman Marc Vogelaar said ground for the reactors has been prepared along with lodging for workers. He said the oil is being delivered as scheduled.
Most of the estimated $4 billion cost for the reactors is to come from South Korea and Japan. None of it comes from the United States, which is responsible for supplying the fuel oil.
Tensions in the region have intermittently caused Japan and South Korea to freeze funding for the construction project, Mr. Vogelaar said, leading to delays.
In his statement, North Korea's Mr. Jo cited strong pressure from the North Korean people and the military to resume work on Pyongyang's own reactor program.
He said the United States "should own responsibility" for the power shortages and resulting economic losses "and make compensation for them in any form."
"This is an irreversible principled demand and a legitimate sovereign right of the DPRK, the victim," he said.
"If the U.S. does not fulfill its commitments but persistently pursues the policy of stifling the DPRK, the DPRK will be left with no option but to go on its way. Then, it will be too late for the U.S. to regret its act." The warning struck a sour note just as hopes were rising for an improvement in relations after talks involving U.S. envoy Charles Kartman and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan, completed Friday in Berlin.
Those talks set the stage for the visit to Washington next month by a senior Pyongyang official, likely Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok-Ju, and prompted speculation that North Korea will be removed from the U.S. list of nations supporting terrorism.
Mr. Kang, or whoever comes in his place, will likely make the demand for compensation for power shortages a top issue in the Washington talks.

Geoffrey Smith in Washington contributed to this report.

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