- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

The U.S.-led international consortium building two nuclear power plants for North Korea will begin excavation work for the first light-water reactor next month, the agency's executive director said this week.
Charles Kartman, the veteran U.S. diplomat who now heads the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), told a Washington gathering of Korea experts Tuesday excavation work will begin in September and KEDO could be prepared to pour the foundations for the coastal site in northern North Korea in about a year.
The $4.6 billion KEDO project, to which Japan and South Korea are major contributors, is the centerpiece of a deal worked out under the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea to supply the beleaguered communist state's energy needs in exchange for a halt to its suspected nuclear weapons development program.
"The public image [of KEDO] is that the project has been beset by problems," said Mr. Kartman. "It certainly remains a difficult task, but the project is well under way and the construction schedule is now moving on."
The construction milestone has been reached despite considerable Republican skepticism in Congress and a lengthy "policy review" earlier this year by President Bush of the Clinton administration's recent rapprochement with the North.
But both Mr. Kartman and skeptics of the North Korean project say the construction milestone puts renewed pressure on Pyongyang to live up to its end of the bargain by moving toward full compliance with the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the first reactor nears operation.
Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency have said they will need at least three years to conduct the inspections necessary to confirm North Korea's compliance. If Pyongyang continues to deny IAEA inspectors access, the prospect looms of a clash as the power plant nears completion.
"The worry for many of us is that big projects like this take on a life of their own, that there will be a lot of pressure to go ahead even if the North Koreans balk" said Victor Gilinsky, a Washington-based energy consultant and former member of the National Regulatory Commission under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan.
Mr. Gilinsky said the U.S. approach should be: "If they pretend to cooperate with the IAEA, then we should just pretend to build the plant."
Said Mr. Kartman: "There remains a whole litany of things that [North Korea] must comply with before the light-water reactors can be ready. The task should be to begin earlier with those things to avoid delays in the future."
Buffeted by logistical, financing, labor, and political delays, the first of the two proposed reactors is already at least some five years behind the 2003 opening date envisaged in the 1994 accord.
Official support for the project has waxed and waned as U.S.-North Korean relations have endured numerous ups and downs over the past seven years.
President Bush's open skepticism of his precedessor's North Korea policy and efforts by Republican lawmakers to substitute a conventional energy plant for the agreement's nuclear reactors led many to predict a collapse of the effort this year.
"President Bush's insistence on verification will make it very unlikely that the nuclear reactors will ever be completed in North Korea," House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, predicted in a speech earlier this year.
Henry Sokolsky, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a senior nonproliferation official in the Pentagon under the first President Bush, said crucial parts of the proposed accord with North Korea remain in dispute even now.
Pyongyang, he noted, recently argued that it had only promised to begin talks on IAEA compliance when a significant portion of the first reactor had been completed, not that it would actually be in compliance by then. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in June reaffirmed the administration's support for the project.
The Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2002 budget also includes $95 million to purchase the 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil promised to North Korea annually until the reactor comes on line.
Alex Wagner, a research analyst for nonproliferation issues at the Arms Control Association, said the creation of a consortium to build the nuclear plant had proven effective in insulating it to some extent from domestic political pressures.
Calling the excavation announcement "a significant milestone," Mr. Wagner said he believed the KEDO partners would be able to apply the brakes to the project if North Korea refused to hold up its end of the bargain.

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