Minister: Japan does not want to pull plug on North Korean nuclear project

Friday, June 27th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ The United States and Japan appeared at odds Friday over whether to complete an international nuclear power project in North Korea, with the U.S. ambassador warning it could be scrapped if the North continues pursuing atomic weapons.

But Tokyo suggested it wanted to push on, despite the deepening standoff with the North.

The $4.6 billion project _ backed by the United States, the European Union, Japan and South Korea _ would build two reactors for energy-starved North Korea as part of a 1994 deal. But it has been in limbo since the Pyongyang government admitted last year it had a secret nuclear program.

The U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, said Friday that Washington was unlikely to follow through with completing the power plants if North Korea did not abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

``My guess is that if the North Koreans do not mend their ways, if they do not decide to engage in the dismantlement of their weapons program, that it is unlikely that the United States would support the completion of those reactors beyond the commitments that we have undertaken under the framework agreement,'' Baker said at the Research Institute of Japan.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said earlier that more dialogue was needed and it was too soon to pull the plug on the project.

``We are not presently thinking of putting an end to it,'' Kawaguchi said.

Kawaguchi later met with Charles Kartman, executive director of the international consortium overseeing the reactor project.

Kartman said the consortium _ known as the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO _ will continue charting the project's future. The two did not discuss halting it, a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

New York-based KEDO was founded to build two light-water reactors in North Korea to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

In that 1994 deal, the reclusive communist nation agreed to mothball a Soviet-era nuclear complex suspected of being used to develop nuclear bombs in return for the new reactors, which cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.

But the future of the project became uncertain last year after North Korea admitted it was covertly pursuing a uranium-based nuclear program.

Washington responded by cutting off oil shipments, prompting North Korea to take steps to restart the mothballed complex.

Earlier, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Yukio Takeuchi reiterated Japan's desire to participate in diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. North Korea originally insisted on dealing only with the United States but participated in three-way talks with China in Beijing in April.

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