[Viewpoint]Put light water reactors in IAEA handsIn sharp contrast to publicity enjoyed by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization when it pulled all its personnel off the construction site for two nuclear light water reactors in North Korea in January 2006, there was virtually no media attention paid to its closing of its secretariat in New York on May 31, over 12 years after its inception on March 9, 1995.
Under the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States, KEDO was to build the reactors as well as annually supply 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea. The organization started the provision of fuel in 1995 but discontinued it when North Korea revealed its enriched uranium program in October 2002. It began constructing the reactors in August 1997 under its supply agreement with North Korea and suspended the project in November 2003.
Although North Korea promised to keep the reactor’s construction site intact until KEDO returns to resume its work, the problem is that the reactors, the construction of which stopped at 34.5 percent of completion, can be sustained for a maximum of three years before turning into scrap iron.
In this context, we need to recall that the spokesman for the North Korean delegation to the six-party talks made it clear, before the ink was dry on the signatures on the joint statement announced on Sept. 19, 2005, that the provision of light water reactors was a prerequisite for the implementation of the agreement reached during the talks.
Even after the Feb. 13, 2007 joint statement was adopted, North Korean chief negotiator Kim Gye-gwan visited New York in March and said that Pyongyang wants light water reactors in return for denuclearization. This means that the reactor issue will resurface as a point of contention now that North Korean funds are released from Banco Delta Asia and North Korea has invited International Atomic Energy Agency personnel to conduct monitoring and verification.
The supply agreement be-tween KEDO and North Korea was designed to hand over the light water reactors to North Korea for operation after completion. This entails three critical hurdles that seem insurmountable: (1) North Korea is neither ready nor willing to accept liability in the event of a nuclear accident. (2) North Korea is incapable of creating and operating a reliable nuclear regulatory regime. (3) The LWRs will be useless until a power distribution grid is in place, which requires billions of dollars for installation.
It is technically too complex for KEDO to go back to the negotiation table with North Korea to overcome the aforementioned hurdles. There may be an idea of expanding KEDO’s executive board to incorporate China and Russia in addition to the current four members ― South Korea, the United States, Japan and the European Union. Even if China and Russia reluctantly join the executive board, it is doubtful that the sticky burden-sharing issue will find any constructive solution.
KEDO was founded as a “carrot,” while “sticks” are wielded by the IAEA. In order to be prepared to cope effectively with situations that may unfold in the coming months, it is highly desirable for the IAEA to hold both sticks and carrots. If the IAEA purchases KEDO’s incomplete light water reactors in North Korea, it will be equipped with useful ammunition when its personnel return for monitoring and verifications in Yongbyon.
If the IAEA takes over the reactors, it will have to complete the construction and operate them to supply electric power to North Korea instead of doing a turnkey business as KEDO was designed to do. Then the IAEA will be able to shoulder nuclear liability, create an internationally accepted nuclear regulatory regime, and install a power distribution grid in North Korea, which anyway is beyond KEDO’s scope of business. As the IAEA is responsible for peaceful use of nuclear power, this scheme will be its best choice to prevent nuclear proliferation from North Korea and guarantee the proliferation-resistant character of the reactors.
When the United States was negotiating the Agreed Framework in 1994, it did not foresee this kind of formula because the nuclear standoff with North Korea was extremely exigent; North Korea did not seem to accept it, and the IAEA was overly stringent, without any political flexibility in regard to the North.
Now that the parties concerned have gained sufficient experience in multilateral negotiations with North Korea, it is the right time for them to render their carrots for the IAEA’s use.
While the fundamental issue is that North Korea must make a strategic decision as soon as it can to dismantle all its nuclear weapons programs for its own interest, it does not seem willing to give up its nuclear ambition anytime soon.
If the six-party process fails, the IAEA will report the case again to the United Nations Security Council, which will be obliged to take appropriate action. It would be wise for the IAEA and the UN to invest their budget in the LWR project at this stage in preparation for upcoming interactions with North Korea.
*The writer is a former distinguished professor in diplomacy at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University.
by Jaebum Kim