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Oil Tanker Is Metaphor for Nuclear Crisis

The drawn-out voyage of a ship filled with fuel for North Korea matches the world's perplexity about how to deal with the militarized country.

November 13, 2002|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — For the last week, a ship by the name of the Sun River has been sailing ever so slowly from Singapore to North Korea, where it is scheduled to deposit 47,000 tons of fuel oil.

At its usual speed, the tanker would reach the Yellow Sea port of Nampo by Friday, but the consortium that leased the ship has directed it to slow down while some of the great powers of the world wrestle with a matter of international consequence.

Should the ship be permitted to deliver its cargo despite North Korea's admission last month that it had broken a 1994 promise to suspend its nuclear weapons program in exchange for oil and other energy assistance? Or should it be ordered to reverse course on the high seas, an extreme measure that could further escalate the nuclear crisis with North Korea?

A rift is growing among the three principal players in the effort to curb the North's nuclear ambitions: the United States, Japan and South Korea. The Bush administration has taken the position that North Korea doesn't deserve any more aid, especially not oil, when it is in violation of international treaties on nuclear weapons. South Korea -- supported, to a certain extent, by Japan -- wants to give the North more leeway to negotiate the dismantling of its newly revealed program to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs.

Enter the Sun River. A deadline for making a decision on the tanker has been set for Thursday, when representatives of the three countries and the European Union are to meet at the New York headquarters of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO, as the consortium involved with North Korea is known.

In the meantime, the Sun River, which left port last Wednesday, remains adrift on the high seas -- an apt metaphor for the bewilderment in the international community about how to deal with North Korea.

"The ship is sailing at a very slow speed in the international sea awaiting further instructions," Koo Byong Sam, a Seoul-based official with the energy consortium, said Tuesday.

South Korean officials said they believe that the United States, in the end, will allow the oil to be delivered, essentially postponing a decision on further oil shipments for at least another month. Under the 1994 deal, oil is to be delivered monthly until the energy consortium finishes construction of two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea.

Although South Korea has publicly downplayed any differences with the United States, it is hard to mask the growing schism between hard-liners in the Bush administration and the government of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his policy of reaching out to North Korea.

"If the ship is stopped, it will cause huge damage. We are entering winter, and the North Koreans need the oil desperately. They will interpret the decision as meaning that the United States is bent on destroying North Korea. It will escalate the risk of military confrontation," said Lee Jong Seok, a North Korea specialist with the Sejong Institute think tank, which is funded by the South Korean government and maintains close ties with the Kim administration.

Lee said the North Koreans' uranium-enrichment project is believed to be at least a year away from fruition, "so there is no reason that the United States should be hasty."

In advance of Thursday's deadline, there has been a flurry of meetings in recent days. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, who elicited North Korea's confession last month, has been consulting with his counterparts in Tokyo, Seoul and, on Tuesday, Beijing. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, said it is China's view that "the parties should continue earnestly to implement the 1994 agreement."

The South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers met Monday in Seoul and pledged to work together to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. A statement read here by a Japanese official said that KEDO "has been effective ... and should not be dealt with hastily."

The structure of the consortium calls for the U.S. to pay for the oil deliveries while South Korea and Japan pay for the building of the light-water reactors. But all are to have an equal voice at the meeting Thursday.

"There is no vote," said Chang Sun Sup, South Korea's representative to the energy consortium. "We will make a decision by consensus."

In the longer term, however, it is up to Congress to appropriate the money, which amounted to $90.5 million in fiscal 2002. Even before the revelations about the uranium-enrichment program, the oil deliveries were anathema to conservatives.

"For the next year ... or very much beyond the present, I see very little support in the U.S. Congress for providing these fuel shipments," Kelly said last week in an interview with PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."

The last delivery of fuel oil to North Korea took place Oct. 18 -- two days after the news broke about North Korea's weapons violations -- but there was too little time then to stop it.

The energy consortium has contracted to buy the oil through January from Westport Petroleum, which has its headquarters in Pasadena.

Emmet P. Lynch, chief operating officer of Westport Petroleum, would not comment on whether the contract could be canceled if the United States pulled out of the program.

Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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