KEDO, whose members include the United States, South Korea, the European Union and Japan, is the international consortium in charge of managing development of two light-water nuclear reactors, which were to be used for energy purposes. The reactors were due to come online in 2007.
The $4.6 billion reactor project will be suspended as of Dec. 1, and KEDO will come to a final decision about the fate of the reactors within the next year. While KEDO will spend the next year attempting to convince the North Koreans to discontinue their nuclear weapons programs, the fate of the project may have already been sealed.
The one-year suspension stops short of the Bush administration?s wish to see the project permanently discontinued, and on Thursday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. stance is that “there’s no future for the reactor project.”
The U.S. ambassador to Seoul, Thomas Hubbard, also suggested the project was unlikely to be restarted.
“While the U.S. is only one member of the KEDO board, the U.S. sees no future for light-water reactors in North Korea,” the ambassador told the Financial Times.
South Korea, however, is reluctant to scrap the project, having invested $1 billion in the reactors. The South is also concerned that the project’s cancellation would unravel any progress made in resolving the nuclear standoff with the North.
Robert Carlin, KEDO assistant director for policy planning and North Korea affairs, is also reluctant to see the project discontinued.
“It (KEDO) has already a legal framework with North Korea. If that’s junked, it’s all going to have to be negotiated again,” Carlin said.
Pending the final decision, the consortium will continue to station approximately 100 caretakers — mostly South Koreans — at the reactor site.
“The suspension process will require preservation and maintenance both on-site and off-site. KEDO continues to consult with the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea],” KEDO’s statement read.
The project was one part of the “Agreed Framework” between North Korea and the Clinton administration; the light-water reactors, difficult to adapt to nuclear weapons production, were meant to replace three reactors capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Additionally, the United States agreed to send fuel oil to satisfy the North’s energy needs.
The agreement ran into trouble in October 2002, when the United States said the North Koreans had admitted work on a secret uranium enrichment project, in violation of a 1994 agreement to cease their nuclear weapons programs. Analysts believe North Korea may be stepping up weapons production, and think they have reprocessed enough plutonium from spent fuel rods to make at least two bombs.
North Korea cites the incomplete light-water reactors as its reason for resuming nuclear weapons development. KEDO had intended to deliver the first reactor to North Korea this year, but the project is only about 30 percent finished and is expected to take another five years.