South Korea yesterday tied the fate of a recently suspended nuclear energy project in North Korea to progress in persuading Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons development.
Last week, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization decided to suspend construction of two nuclear reactors in North Korea in retaliation for North Korea's atomic weapons programs.
The US, South Korea, Japan and the European Union belong to the US-led consortium, or KEDO.
South Korea's unification minister said yesterday that restarting the project, much coveted by energy-starved North Korea, hinged on progress being made at planned international talks on the nuclear weapons standoff.
"The direction and content of the light-water reactor project will be decided not only through future six-nation talks, but through talks aimed at resolving North Korea's nuclear issue," Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said.
"There will be bright prospects for the project if relations between North Korea and the United States improve as an outcome of the [nuclear] talks,'' Jeong said.
The yearlong suspension of the US-led project was a blow to North Korea, which badly needs its two reactors to generate electricity for the impoverished state. North Korea reacted by saying it will seize equipment and technical data from the construction site at Kumho, a remote coastal village.
The US$4.6 billion project is the biggest construction project in the North. The planned reactors are for power-generation, and it's extremely difficult to use them for weapons purposes.
The project was launched after North Korea promised to freeze and eventually dismantle its suspected nuclear weapons facilities in a 1994 deal with the US. But the 1994 deal went sour after US officials said last year North Korea admitted secretly running a new nuclear program in violation of international agreements.
Jeong said North Korea's intention to seize equipment at the construction site will also be addressed during upcoming international talks. A group of six nations is planning to hold a second round of negotiations on persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
The talks, involving the US, Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas, are expected to take place as early as next month. The first conference in August ended without much progress.
Since last year, Washington and its allies have cut off 3.5 million barrels of annual free oil shipments to North Korea that were also part of the 1994 deal.
Pyongyang later expelled UN nuclear monitors and said it was restarting the plutonium-based weapons program it froze under the deal. Last month, it said it was building more atomic bombs, adding to the one or two it is believed to already possess.