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KEDO Pours Concrete for North Korean Nuclear Reactor

September 2002

By Paul Kerr

The Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) held a ceremony August 7 in Kumho, North Korea, to mark the pouring of the concrete foundation for the first light-water reactor (LWR) that the United States agreed to provide North Korea under the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Jack Pritchard, the U.S. representative to KEDO and State Department special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, attended the ceremony. Pritchard is the most senior U.S. official to visit North Korea since former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did so in October 2000, and his presence was widely regarded as a signal of U.S. support for the Agreed Framework, which has been uncertain throughout the Bush administration.

Under the Agreed Framework, the United States agreed to construct two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors in North Korea in exchange for a freeze on the country’s nuclear program and eventual dismantlement of its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities. KEDO is the international consortium implementing the agreement. The first reactor was originally scheduled to be completed by 2003, but construction has fallen behind schedule and the reactor is not expected to be finished before 2008, barring further delays.

Washington’s commitment to completing its obligations under the framework has been in question since President Bush put talks with Pyongyang on hold last year. The president subsequently indicated that the United States would like to resume negotiations with North Korea, but in his January 29 State of the Union address he then named the country a member of the “axis of evil,” citing Pyongyang’s attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and missile technology. (See ACT, March 2002.) On March 20, the Bush administration refused to certify that North Korea was fully complying with the Agreed Framework, a congressionally mandated condition for KEDO to receive U.S. funding. Bush waived the certification requirement, however, and funding for KEDO was not affected. (See ACT, April 2002.)

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker praised the pouring of concrete as evidence of the “tangible progress made in construction and the importance to the reactor project’s ultimate success.” Chang Sun-sup, the chairman of KEDO’s executive board, stated that the ceremony might increase North Korea’s “confidence in the project,” noting that North Korea had been “wary of whether or not the LWR construction would even be completed.”

The United States used the ceremony as an opportunity to urge North Korea to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguarding procedures as soon as possible. The Agreed Framework says that North Korea must fully comply with IAEA safeguards, which are designed to provide an accurate accounting of all North Korean nuclear material and to prevent its diversion to military activities, when “a significant portion of the LWR project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components.”

The United States, however, wants North Korea to begin cooperation with the IAEA as soon as possible because the agency needs approximately three to four years to complete inspections, according to a State Department official interviewed August 15. There are concerns that waiting to start inspections until a significant portion of the project is completed would jeopardize the Agreed Framework’s ultimate success because it would further delay completion of the light-water reactors and generate additional political opposition in the United States.

North Korea told the United States, South Korea, and Japan that it would not allow IAEA inspections for at least three years, the Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported August 8—an expression consistent with past North Korean positions on inspections, according to the State Department official. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman stated August 13 that “the U.S. just started the ground concrete tamping recently, far from meeting the target to complete…construction by 2003 as it had promised to do,” according to the state-owned Korean Central News Agency.

Pyongyang said that delays in completing the reactor project might motivate it to pull out of the agreement. The Foreign Ministry spokesman added that the Agreed Framework “stands at the crossroads of abrogation or preservation…. The reality is pushing us to the phase where we should make a final decision to go our own way.”