U.S. Concerned by Pyongyang's Talk of Constructing New Reactors

By Todd Bullock
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - North Korea's recent statements that it intends to build additional nuclear reactors has the United States reminding the government in Pyongyang of its September agreement to end its nuclear weapons programs.

The North Korea regime announced December 20 its intention to build two light-water reactors and to resume work on two graphite-moderated reactors.  Of the two types of nuclear reactors, the graphite-moderated reactor is considered more threatening because it is capable of producing significant amounts of material that can be used to build nuclear bombs.

"North Korea needs to get out of the nuclear business and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons," a State Department official said in a December 21 interview with the Washington File. The official added that North Korea also recently pledged to re-enter the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

In a September 19 agreement at the Six-Party Talks that included the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, North Korea agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for economic cooperation in energy, trade and investment. (See related article.)

During the September talks, North Korea demanded a light-water reactor - generally considered less threatening in its capacity to produce fuel that could be used for nuclear weapons - for its electrical energy needs.  The parties agreed, however, only "to discuss at an appropriate time" the provision of a light-water reactor to the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea (DPRK).

"The appropriate time to discuss potential North Korean use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should be after it has eliminated all nuclear weapons programs and all nuclear programs and this has been verified to the satisfaction of all parties by credible international means including the IAEA," the State Department official said.

The official also said Pyongyang must come into full compliance with NPT and IAEA safeguards, cease proliferating nuclear technology and demonstrate a sustained commitment to cooperation and transparency.

"North Korea has no need for nuclear reactors for domestic energy," the official said, citing a South Korean proposal quickly to supply conventional electrical energy to the North if it lived up to its agreement.

Despite North Korea’s initial indications at the September talks that it was willing to end its nuclear programs, it has yet to shut down its Yongbyon reactor.  At Six-Party talks held in Beijing in November, which were intended to find ways to implement the September agreement, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill called for a shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor. Only this, and a full disclosure of current nuclear programs would allow for further progress in the multilateral effort aimed at a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, he said. (See related article.) 

For additional information, see U.S. Policy Toward North Korea.