[OUTLOOK]Saving the KEDO project

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[OUTLOOK]Saving the KEDO project

In July 1994, Robert Gallucci, then a U.S. Department of State special envoy dealing with the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the chief U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang, came up with the idea of nuclear reactors for North Korea and designating another nation as the principal builder because U.S. law would not allow Washington to take the lead in construction or in financing. Mr. Gallucci preferred Korean light-water reactors for financing and management reasons. With Korea and Japan providing most of the funds, he had a plan that the United States would form a committee with European nations to manage the project. He named the new organization, “The Korea Energy Development Organization.” While it is later changed into the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the abbreviation, KEDO, remains the same.
In recent years, the project of constructing two 1,000-megawatt light-water reactors in North Korea in return for freezing its nuclear program was moribund, and the withdrawal of the last remaining 57 facility management staff members from the light-water reactor sight in Sinpo, South Hamgyong province on Sunday marked the official termination of the project. The death of the light-water reactor project, which had been seen as a possible key to the resolution of the nuclear crisis for the last 11 years, is only waiting to be finalized by a declaration of termination on paper, which is expected to come within the first half of this year. Considering the fact that the project has been suspended since the end of 2003, the evacuation of the workers was a mere procedure confirming the end of the light-water reactors. From the beginning, Pyongyang and Washington had completely different plans when they agreed on the light-water reactor project, and it was one of the very rare cases of Washington offering a carrot in a diplomatic negotiation. Of course, just as Mr. Gallucci later confessed, Washington had optimistically presumed that Pyongyang was likely to collapse in the near future, and therefore, it would not need to provide the light-water reactors ultimately.
For Washington, the day the Geneva Agreed Framework was signed, Oct. 21, 1994, was only two weeks before mid-term elections which would install the entire House of the Representatives and one-third of the senators and governors. The Republican Party, which was in opposition at the time, attacked the weak diplomatic negotiating skills displayed by the Clinton administration, and the media also condemned the Geneva Agreement as surrendering to the blackmail of a rogue nation. The Clinton administration had to go through a lot of trouble implementing the Agreed Framework. The Bush administration has been passive in carrying out the “give-and-take” negotiations under the Geneva Agreement. Pyongyang saw through the intentions of the Bush Administration and went back to the addictive drug of its nuclear program. The discord between Washington and Pyongyang surfaced during the visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to the North in 2002.
The termination of the light-water reactor construction not only adds financial burdens to Seoul but also aggravates nuclear tensions. The loss of at least 1.4 billion dollars, including the cleanup costs, is no small sum for Seoul to pay for the stability of the Korean Peninsula. Of course, we should not underestimate the contributions of KEDO in maintaining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a diplomatic solution and keeping peace in Northeast Asia in the mid and late 1990s. However, the event teaches all of us a lesson in international politics ― that even the best possible agreement between Pyongyang and Washington cannot be implemented properly when the two sides lack trust in each other.
The withdrawal of the workers from the light-water reactor site, which was a “virtual deportation” after Pyongyang demanded KEDO evacuate its personnel, is an extension of the confrontation between the United States and North Korea that has been heating up since the end of last year. With Washington tightening its financial sanctions, Pyongyang is increasingly becoming aggressive towards the United States. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported at the end of last year that Pyongyang had suffered a material loss of hundreds of millions of dollars and claimed that Washington had to compensate it. Pyongyang is likely to demand compensation in the course of settling the termination of the project. Seoul would have to be responsible for a considerable part of the penalties for ending the project midway through it. The complex settlement following the suspension of the light-water reactor project will be as exhausting as the dissolution of a bankrupt company. In the nuclear six-party talks, the abandonment of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and the light-water reactor issue have to be discussed together.
In order to recover the invested money, which could vanish into the thin air, there is no alternative but for Pyongyang to faithfully carry out the Sept. 19 agreement at the six-way talks. Since there is no better site than Sinpo for the new light-water reactor that Pyongyang is obsessed with, the best bet is to save the existing reactor. We don’t have much time before the product of 11 years of efforts turns into junk. The shortcut solution is that Pyongyang returns to the six-party meeting and discusses the new plan.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Nam Sung-wook
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