The United States said it would consider again supplying North Korea with a light-water nuclear reactor as part of recent talks in Beijing, according to Bush administration officials.
The discussion came during a meeting at the six-party talks last week between Joseph DeTrani, the top U.S. representative to the talks, and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Gun.
“The North Koreans raised it,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They said, ‘If we address the [highly enriched uranium] program, what would that mean for the light-water reactor program?’”
The private discussion, part of the working group talks on North Korea’s nuclear arms program, also was the first time since 2002 that North Koreans acknowledged their covert uranium-based nuclear program. Publicly, North Korea has denied having a uranium-enrichment program.
Mr. DeTrani responded in the talks that providing the light-water reactor is possible and could be “one element” of a U.S. policy response, if the North Koreans abandoned their nuclear arms program.
However, Mr. DeTrani informed North Koreans that before the reactor deal could be discussed, Pyongyang would have to rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and permit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to return to monitor North Korean nuclear activities.
North Korea pulled out of the nonproliferation accord in January 2003 and expelled IAEA inspectors in December 2002.
The United States, Japan and South Korea agreed to provide North Korea with two light-water reactors as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework, negotiated by the Clinton administration. The reactors — which use ordinary water instead of “heavy water” containing the hydrogen isotope deuterium — are designed to be less useful for making nuclear weapons.
The 1994 agreement was supposed to have halted Pyongyang’s development of nuclear arms but was abandoned after North Korea’s disclosure to a U.S. diplomat in October 2002 that it was working on uranium enrichment, a process that would allow North Korea to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.
The agreement called for supplying the reactors and fuel oil to North Korea but was put on hold after the disclosure of the secret uranium-enrichment effort. Concrete was poured for the foundation of the first reactor in August 2002. Construction was suspended — but not canceled — in December 2002.
The offer of the reactor last week set off interagency disputes between Bush administration officials who oppose making any deals with North Korea and others who favor compromise.
Within interagency councils, Defense Department officials generally have been opposed to making any concessions to North Koreans. State Department officials, specifically those in the East Asian bureau, are more supportive of reaching a new agreement.
“We’ve been that route before,” said one U.S. official familiar with the talks who opposes any suggestion of giving North Korea a reactor.
This official said it appeared Mr. DeTrani went beyond the very limited talking points, prepared during U.S. interagency discussions, that prevent him from discussing concessions such as the reactor.
A second administration official said that Mr. DeTrani’s discussion of the reactor with the North Koreans did not undermine the tough stance of the U.S. side at the talks.
The U.S. side is insisting that before any concessions are made to North Korea, Pyongyang must completely dismantle all its nuclear arms programs and provide ways to verify that the programs have been dismantled.
At the White House, a senior administration official said the U.S. policy toward the North Korean nuclear program “remains unchanged” in advocating a complete end to the program.
As for discussion of the light-water reactor program, the senior official said: “We see no future for the light-water project.”
Henry Sokolski, director of the private Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said any discussion of resuming the light-water reactor deal with North Korea is a bad idea.
“I think we should leave bad enough alone,” Mr. Sokolski said in an interview. “This is no way to improve any aspect of the crisis. This is literally a radioactive idea that should be kept away from all people who care about keeping peace on the [Korean] peninsula for the future. If we are going to bribe them, find something else.”
Mr. Sokolski said that the only thing that giving the North Koreans a light-water reactor would do is “increase the uncertainty of how many bombs’ worth of plutonium they can produce.”
“There is no way we should be going back to this,” he said. “We were good enough to unplug this.”
The six-party talks ended Friday with no real progress in reaching an agreement. No details of the secret talks have been public until now.
Publicly, Mr. DeTrani told reporters in Beijing that the talks were a “good meeting.”
Asked if progress had been made, Mr. DeTrani said: “Yes, definitely.” He did not elaborate.
The U.S. position remained that North Korea would not get any concessions until it carries out a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling,” a position officials call CVID.
North Korea’s chief negotiator, Ri Gun, told reporters that negotiators backed Pyongyang’s call for aid in exchange for freezing the country’s nuclear program.
“One thing that has been confirmed is that there is a shared view that we must get compensation when we freeze our nuclear weapons development plan,” Mr. Ri told reporters in Beijing last week.
“But the United States kept demanding our promise of CVID, and there has been a shared view that this is the basic hurdle in discussions,” he said. “We will, however, continue to participate in the talk process with patience.”