- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The international consortium building two nuclear reactors in North Korea is poised to suspend work on the project indefinitely, U.S. officials said yesterday, as delicate talks began in Beijing on the North’s nuclear weapons programs.

A U.S. administration official familiar with the discussions confirmed that officials from the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, known as KEDO, will meet by early October to mothball the construction program, the centerpiece of a 1994 Clinton administration deal designed to keep Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear arms.

“Everybody has known for some time that this project was never coming to fruition,” the official said. “It was just a question of when to admit it.”

Diplomats from six nations convened in Beijing today for talks to resolve East Asia’s most urgent security concern — North Korea’s nuclear program and demands by the United States that it stand down immediately.

China, the host country, called for a “calm and patient attitude” for the meetings, put together after months of intense diplomacy. Envoys for the United States and North Korea shook hands, as did others, before they crisply got down to business.

Work on the project to build the reactors essentially was put on hold after North Korea acknowledged to U.S. negotiators that it had violated the 1994 accord by operating a second, clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons.

The KEDO partners — the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union — are expected to suspend work formally on the reactors at the next board meeting to be held in late September or early October.

An unnamed U.S. official told Reuters news agency that the Bush administration favored a complete termination of the construction project, but that Japan and South Korea were pushing for a one-year suspension of work at the site.

“Our position is just tank the thing now,” the news service quoted the official as saying. Other officials said even a one-year suspension in the work amounted to a virtual death sentence for the project, barring an unexpected reversal in Pyongyang’s stance on its nuclear programs.

Japanese newspapers, citing diplomatic sources there, reported last week that the United States and Japan were convinced the KEDO project was beyond salvation, and the only thing to work out was the timing of the funeral.

News of the project’s cancellation came as delegations from the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and host China were g athering for the first of three days of talks today in the Chinese capital on the Korean crisis.

The Bush administration is demanding that Pyongyang abide by promises not to build and sell nuclear arms, and to resume cooperation with international nuclear inspectors over its programs.

The North wants a nonaggression pact from the United States as well as substantial aid to boost its collapsing economy.

China hosted a dinner for the visiting delegations last night at the negotiating site. Multilateral talks were scheduled for today and Friday. Informal bilateral discussions between U.S. and North Korean delegates, long sought by Pyongyang, are expected to be held tomorrow.

Few expect a major breakthrough to emerge from the three-day meeting, but news of the KEDO decision could cast a shadow over the talks.

Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, the United States and its allies agreed to provide the two light-water reactors and a series of fuel subsidies in exchange for North Korea’s pledge to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

North Korea has cited construction delays in the KEDO project in arguing that it no longer feels bound to abide by its promises under the 1994 deal. The reactors were supposed to open this year, with South Korea footing about 70 percent of the cost.

U.S. intelligence analysts believe that the North possesses one or two nuclear bombs and is on the way to building several more. The prospect has raised tensions throughout East Asia and fueled diplomatic efforts resulting in this week’s Beijing talks.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, said in an interview with a German magazine that North Korea was the world’s biggest threat and was using “nuclear blackmail” to intimidate its neighbors and extract political concessions.

Although the timing of the KEDO board meeting inevitably will affect the Beijing talks, analysts say, construction and financial realities have played as big a role as politics in the timing.

Contractors working on the project have been unable to obtain licenses or insurance needed to proceed, halting work on the reactors. U.S. government funding beyond the current fiscal year is also in doubt, making construction planning almost impossible.

“It does fit in awkwardly with the six-party talks,” the administration official said, “but there were also certain realities on the ground that couldn’t be ignored anymore.”

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