Thu, Dec 31, 2009 - Page 5 News List

North Korea ‘stealing’ equipment

REUTERS AND AP , SEOUL

North Korea has been taking equipment left at a nuclear reactor site that was mothballed when an international consortium halted work on grounds Pyongyang was breaking an agreement, a news report said yesterday.

If the report is true, the looting would be in defiance of a deal the North reached in the 1990s with regional powers and could cloud a recent push to restart international disarmament-for-aid discussions.

Billions of dollars were poured into the project to build two relatively proliferation-resistant light water reactors for the North in return for a promise to freeze its nuclear plant that produces arms-grade plutonium. The deal was halted in 2002 with a third of the work finished.

North Korea may have used some of the more than 200 pieces of heavy equipment taken from the site in the country’s northeast to stage a nuclear test in May, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said, quoting government officials.

“The removal of equipment without taking steps to settle financial issues is a clear violation of the agreement and can be construed as theft,” one official was quoted as saying.

South Korea bore the majority of the costs spent on the project arising from a deal called the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 by the US and North Korea. A consortium called KEDO to build the nuclear plants also grew out of the deal.

Equipment left behind at the site is valued at 45.5 billion won (US$39 million), including cranes and bulldozers and nearly 200 trucks and other vehicles, the JoongAng Ilbo said.

Most of the 6,500 tonnes of steel and 32 tonnes of cement left behind has also been taken from the site by the North, which is desperately short of building material.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry could not confirm the report but said it has asked the North every year for confirmation of KEDO’s rights to the equipment. The North has said nothing would be allowed to be shipped out until the project is restarted and complete.

Meanwhile, the North’s New Year’s wish of seeing the destruction of a massive concrete wall dividing the Korean Peninsula never seems to come true — mostly because there is no such barrier.

Mentioning the wall by the North has been an odd New Year tradition begun by state founder Kim Il-sung and kept alive by a fawning propaganda machine that dares not correct a person revered as a deity. Kim died 15 years ago and is considered the state’s “eternal president.”

The peninsula is divided by a 4-km wide Demilitarized Zone with razor wire fences on the North and South side, but with no huge, concrete barrier.

That did not stop the North’s ruling party newspaper yesterday from demanding that the wall be demolished because “it runs diametrically counter to the desire and demand of the nation and the trend of the times.”

A few weeks after the Berlin Wall started coming down in 1989, Kim said in a New Year’s address that Seoul had built a massive concrete wall to divide the two states. Analysts said Kim made the claim to rally support for his state as its communist allies were fading.

The North’s official media has painted a vivid picture of the wall that is not there. It says the border wall is 5m to 8m high, is as thick as 19m and was built in the 1970s by a “South Korean military fascist clique.”

On a more realistic note, the two Koreas opened new, updated military hot lines yesterday to help facilitate border crossings, an official said in Seoul. The new hot lines replaced outdated copper cable hot lines that will remain as spare lines, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

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