Pride at stake as Koreas wrangle over nuclear deal

Seoul feels swindled as North scorns offer of modern power plants, writes Raymond Whitaker in Ulchin
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The Independent Online
"We would all like to go to North Korea," said Nicholas Sungbong Kim. "When the time comes, I hope very much to be selected."

The South Korean authorities still lock people up for expressing such sentiments, even if they are not senior nuclear technicians such as Mr Kim. Given the four decades of paranoia which have governed inter- Korean relations, the thought that he and his colleagues might receive official encouragement to impart their expertise to North Korea would have seemed ridiculous barely a year ago.

Mr Kim is an operations manager at the Ulchin nuclear power plant, South Korea's newest. In a traditional-print landscape of coves and pine-clad slopes on the east coast, two towering reactor buildings overlook the sea. A third tower is almost complete; men and cranes swarm around the huge steel cylinder at the heart of a fourth, and land has been set aside for a further two reactors.

The units under construction at Ulchin are of a new type known as the "Korean standard" - 1,000MW light-water reactors which are nearly 95 per cent locally made, using technology transfer agreements. Eight such reactors are in various stages of testing, construction or planning around South Korea; next month, at Yonggwang, on the west coast, the first will start feeding power into the national grid. Under the terms of last year's deal aimed at neutralising North Korea's nuclear threat, the South has offered not only to build two more in North Korea, but to meet 70 per cent of the $4bn (£2.5bn) cost.

Most of the rest will be paid by Japan, but President Kim Young Sam will ask Britain to make a symbolic contribution when he arrives on a visit next week. The contrast between the South Korean nuclear industry, one of the safest and most efficient in the world, and the North's murky programme reflects the huge disparities in their economic and political development over the past 25 years. North Korea's Soviet-supplied reactors produce large quantities of highly radioactive plutonium, some of which was discovered by the IAEA in 1992 to have gone missing. While the North suffers chronic electricity shortages, intelligence experts believe power lines running to the country's nuclear complex at Yongbyon are fakes, designed to conceal its true purpose - to produce atomic weapons. Last year, after months of brinkmanship, Pyongyang agreed to bargain away its potential for nuclear mayhem.

Not only has it obtained much more powerful and modern nuclear technology, though of a type far harder to divert to military use, but it secured its diplomatic objective of negotiating directly with the United States. Characteristically, it is now trying to ignore the parts of the deal it finds unpalatable: reopening dialogue with South Korea and accepting humiliating evidence, in the form of the reactors and the hundreds of technicians who will come with them, of Seoul's economic and technological superiority. It has been threatening to pull out of last year's deal if the "Korean standard" is the only one on offer.

For South Korea, whose suspicion over the agreement was allayed only by the conditions Pyongyang is now seeking to flout, this simply proves that the Clinton administration allowed itself to be bamboozled. And it seems that further annoyance is on the way. North Korea will probably accept "Korean standard" reactors in the end - as long as they have some other name. According to hints from Washington, an American company such as Westinghouse may be brought in purely to save face.

To men devoted to the technology, such as Nicholas Kim and the Ulchin plant's director, Choi Chang Tong, such wrangling is incomprehensible. "We have all the manuals, already in Korean. No need to translate them for use by the North," said Mr Kim. His boss made the same point. "It makes sense economically and scientifically." But did it make political sense, from North Korea's point of view? "I can't comment on that," said Mr Choi, smiling tightly.