North Korea’s response to the suspension of its fuel oil shipments has been to restart its programme of Soviet-designed gas-graphite reactors at Yongbyon. It gives as the reason a power shortage caused by the loss of its fuel oil supply.
Restarting work on the three nuclear reactors – a 5MWe idled research reactor and two power reactors with capacities of 50MWe and 200 MWe – would be a violation of the 1994 Framework Agreement between North Korea and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO). Reports suggest that construction of the power reactors could be completed within two years. The site, mothballed since 1994, is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The UN inspectors monitoring it have been expelled. However, the KEDO project to build two 1000 MWe PWRs is still underway, the units being about 30 per cent complete. These reactors, along with the fuel oil shipments, were to be supplied to North Korea under the Framework Agreement, in return for North Korea’s cancelling its programme to develop nuclear weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has admitted that it has never been able confidently to verify whether North Korea has complied with the Framework Agreement. In a statement issued after North Korea announced that it was to cease allowing the IAEA to monitor its plants using seals and cameras, the IAEA said: ‘Since 1993 it has drawn the conclusion that North Korea is in non-compliance with its obligations under the Agreement. In other words, the Agency has never had the complete picture regarding North Korean nuclear activities and has never been able to provide assurances regarding the peaceful character of its nuclear programme.’ IAEA director general Mohamed El Baradei confirmed that North Korea had removed seals on the spent fuel pool of its experimental 5 MWe reactor, containing some 8000 fuel rods, and had ‘impeded’ the functioning of essential IAEA surveillance equipment. ‘It is deplorable’ he said ‘that North Korea has not responded to repeated requests I have made for an urgently needed discussion on safeguards issues in North Korea in order for North Korea to come into compliance with its non-proliferation treaty safeguards agreement.’
The USA, China and South Korea are all talking up their wish for a diplomatic solution, and attempts to defuse the crisis diplomatically are continuing, although reports as to its likely effectiveness vary. South Korea, and North Korea’s chief ally China, have agreed to try and use diplomatic means to avoid a showdown between the United States and North Korea, but following a meeting between South Korean deputy foreign minister Lee Tae-shik and Chinese vice foreign minister Wang Yi, an attempt to get China to put more pressure on North Korea to halt its weapons programme, the Chinese foreign ministry statement said only “The two sides exchanged views on bilateral relations and common concerns on North Korea nuclear issues.” But the South Korean foreign ministry in the person of Shin Jung-Seung, director general of the ministry’s Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau said “The two sides … agreed to work together to prevent a further escalation of the situation”.
North Korea itself is urging South Koreans to join in resisting the United States, and is accusing Washington of whipping up the confrontation. “The US seeks to escalate military pressure and offensive against the DPRK on the charge of posing a nuclear and missile threat and, furthermore, bring it to its knees by force,” said North Korea’s official newspaper Minju Joson. But president Bush denies this, saying that Washington and Pyongyang were engaged in “a diplomatic showdown, not a military showdown.” Washington has ruled out use of the food weapon – it will continue humanitarian food aid to North Korea.