Fuel Oil Shipments to North Korea Suspended

W By Sonni Efron

wASHINGTON – In a victory for Bush administration hard-liners, key allies agreed Thursday to suspend future fuel oil shipments to North Korea until it takes “concrete and credible actions” to dismantle its recently revealed program to develop nuclear weapons using enriched uranium.

A ship ordered to slow its journey toward North Korea while the international community decided what to do with the tanker’s 47,000 tons of heavy fuel oil will be permitted to deliver its cargo, but future oil shipments will be suspended beginning in December, the executive board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO, announced Thursday night after a protracted internal debate.

The decision to “suspend” shipments represented a concession to South Korea, which along with a less-vocal Japan, reportedly opposed an outright cutoff of fuel aid to North Korea. The two governments, along with some Bush administration officials, had argued that punishing North Korea could drive Kim Jong Il’s regime to unfreeze its stockpiles of plutonium and restart efforts to produce nuclear weapons.

North Korea had agreed in 1994 to freeze its plutonium program in a deal with the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union. KEDO was set up to administer the agreement.

Thursday’s decision avoided a rift among the KEDO members and allowed the aid donors to present North Korea with a united front that diplomats from all the countries see as crucial.

The statement made it clear that North Korea could not expect to be rewarded with aid after confessing last month to the secret program to enrich uranium that could be used in a nuclear device, in violation of its international commitments. Nor did it accede to North Korea’s key demand: that Washington negotiate with Pyongyang over the terms under which the North Koreans might be willing to abandon the uranium program. Both were key U.S. objectives.

The KEDO board statement condemned the nuclear program as “a clear and serious violation” of North Korea’s commitments that posed “a shared challenge to all responsible states.” The secret program “threatens regional and international security and undermines the international non-proliferation regime,” the statement said.

At the same time, the board said that dialogue between North Korea and Japan, South Korea and the EU would remain an important channel for resolving those differences – pointedly not mentioning the United States.

“Future shipments will depend on North Korea’s concrete and credible actions to dismantle completely its highly-enriched uranium program,” the statement said. “In this light, other KEDO activities with North Korea will be reviewed. The executive board will continue to consult on next steps with regard to future activities of KEDO.”

That language presumably refers to the status of two light-water nuclear power reactors promised to North Korea under the 1994 deal. Under that agreement, North Korea promised to freeze its plutonium bomb program, and the United States pledged to fund 20 years of heavy fuel oil shipments to help the energy-starved North until the reactors, paid for and built by South Korea, Japan and the European Union, were finished.

If it were to restart its mothballed plutonium program, experts believe, North Korea could produce plutonium for about six weapons in as little as six months.