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Shopping in the Wrong Market : N. Korean move to buy Russian reactors threatens non-proliferation deal

A Congress that hasn’t hidden its doubts about what the Clinton Administration hopes will be a durable nuclear non-proliferation deal with North Korea could soon have its skepticism deepened.

Under last year’s agreement, North Korea would get two large light-water power reactors, which produce only small amounts of plutonium, and Pyongyang would give up its existing nuclear program, which is capable of creating much weapons-grade plutonium. The reactors cost $4 billion, and most of the financing is to come from South Korea and Japan, the countries most directly threatened if Pyongyang gets nuclear arms.

South Korea, for good reasons, wants to provide the reactors, first because it is footing much of the bill but even more to the point because most South Koreans now believe that reunification of their divided peninsula is an inevitability and that it makes sense to have a standardized power system. But North Korea is balking, saying it prefers to buy Russian reactors because it’s already familiar with the technology. Left unstated is the secretive North Korean regime’s discomfort over the prospect of having South Korean technicians working in the country for the next decade.

South Korea’s experiences with the North over the last half-century have not left a basis for trust, and misgivings about the nuclear deal have been open and strong. So strong that if North Korea refuses to take South Korean reactors, in all likelihood Seoul will simply withdraw from the project. How would the financing gap then be filled? Certainly there’s no prospect of U.S. funding.

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There is, as we’ve said before, a lot about the details and oversight procedures in the nuclear deal that raises questions. At a minimum, close congressional monitoring of how it is carried out is vital.

It’s notable, though, that just this week high intelligence officials told Congress that positive signs of change are emerging in North Korea, boosting hopes for stability in the area. Most welcome as a sign of change would be for Pyongyang to agree to get its reactors from South Korea, rather than risk scuttling a deal that’s so clearly in its interests.


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