Red Light For N. Korea Nuke Plants

The United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union on Friday said they are halting construction work on two nuclear reactors in North Korea, which is suspected of secretly developing atomic weapons.

All four are members of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) executive board, which has been building the light-water reactors as part of a 1994 deal between the United States and North Korea. The reactors were meant to come online in 2007.

The one-year work suspension will begin Dec. 1, KEDO said in a statement read by spokesman Roland Tricot at its New York headquarters.

But it was unclear if construction would ever resume as long as the United States remains at odds with North Korea over the weapons issue. The KEDO board is to meet by year's end to decide what happens next.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Thursday the U.S. position was that "there's no future for the reactor project."

The light-water reactors being built by KEDO are difficult to adapt to nuclear weapons production and were meant to replace three North Korean reactors that were considered much more ominous because they produce weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korea also has announced it is enriching uranium, which could be used in bombs, and expelled inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

Most security analysts believe North Korea has reprocessed enough plutonium from spent fuel rods to make at least two bombs and fear it may be stepping up weapons production.

North Korea agreed in the 1994 negotiations to forswear nuclear weapons. When it became apparent a year ago that North Korea was not abiding by that commitment, strong doubt was cast on the future of the $4.6 billion reactor project.

At a meeting on Nov. 4 of the KEDO executive board, there was unanimous agreement that the project should be suspended for one year. The announcement was made formally in New York on Friday.

Meanwhile, North Korea berated U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for calling its government "evil" for spending huge sums on weapons while starving its people.

Pyongyang has accused Washington of planning a pre-emptive attack against it, after President Bush labeled the country part of an "axis of evil" together with Iran and Iraq.

"Recently the Bush administration is talking about offering a security guarantee for our country, but the slander by Rumsfeld, who leads the U.S. policy, shows that the 'security guarantee' is nothing more than a play aimed at deceiving us," KCNA, the North's official news agency, said in a commentary.

This shows that North Korea should increase its "nuclear deterrent force," KCNA said Friday.

Faced with suspension of nuclear power plant construction, North Korea said two weeks ago it will seize equipment and technical data from the two sites.

The suspension gives the government "a reason strong enough to take the most appropriate measure when necessary," the North Korean statement said. It did not elaborate.

The project was designed to generate badly needed electricity for the impoverished state. Under the agreement, the United States and its allies also sent North Korea 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually, but that was suspended late last year after Pyongyang announced it had embarked on a clandestine "nuclear deterrent" program.

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts continue to arrange a second round of six-nation talks on the stalemate over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

In Seoul, South Korea, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly conferred Friday on that subject with his South Korean counterpart, Assistant Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck.

They also discussed security assurances for North Korea, one of its key conditions for ending its nuclear programs.

Kelly made a quick tour of Asia this week amid efforts to hold another round of nuclear talks involving the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia. He visited Tokyo and Beijing before coming to Seoul.