WASHINGTON — A 1994 deal aimed at freezing North Korea's nuclear program has moved closer to dissolution with an informal agreement by the United States and three allies to suspend construction of two nuclear reactors for the Pyongyang regime.
The United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union plan a formal vote this month on a one-year suspension of work on the reactors, which they were building for the North in exchange for its abandoning its nuclear weapons aspirations. But diplomats said there was little doubt that the project would be stopped.
A suspension would kill the $4.6-billion energy project, because the United States wants it stopped, and the allies have agreed that only a unanimous vote could restart it. "There is no future for the reactor project," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.
The four-member consortium, called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, reached the agreement in meetings Monday and Tuesday in New York.
The organization's board said the formal vote would come Nov. 21, after representatives consult with their governments.
The deal to build the light-water reactors was put together in 1994, to avert the increasing threat of war on the peninsula. The arrangement called for Pyongyang to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons development program.
But last fall, North Korea disclosed that it had been carrying on a secret nuclear weapons program. The consortium slowed the building of the reactors, which were being assembled in northeastern North Korea.
A vote to halt the project might prompt North Korea to not continue six-party talks on the nuclear program. But diplomats and some private experts said they believed that Pyongyang already was prepared for a halt to the project, and predicted that it would not be a major influence on the regime's decision about the talks.
A State Department official said that while a reversal by the North Koreans "is a theoretical possibility ... it's not something we're overly concerned about." Work on the reactors slowed some time ago, and that didn't stop the North Koreans from engaging in the six-party talks in August, he noted.
Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. representative on North Korea, said he believed that North Korea might publicly condemn the consortium's decision, probably after the regime receives a formal briefing on the outcome. But, "ultimately I think it will not be a deciding factor, and they will come" to future talks, Pritchard said.
Last week, North Korea agreed "in principle" to participate again in the six-party talks.
The consortium members have had varying degrees of support for the idea of continuing the work.
South Korea, which has funded 70% of the cost of construction and is eager to avoid provoking the North, has been most eager to continue the work. The Japanese were less inclined, while the EU has signaled that it would accept the decision of the majority, Pritchard said.
In recent conversations, South Korea has argued for a suspension rather than a cancellation, saying that would give the North an incentive to halt its weapons program.
South Korean officials disagreed with the U.S. view that a one-year suspension was tantamount to canceling the project.
"Our government's position is based on the premise that if the project is halted temporarily, it can resume a year later," South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan told reporters in Seoul on Wednesday. He said that the construction would have had to be suspended in any case because of delays in the delivery of a key component, which could not be shipped until a liability agreement was reached over who would have responsibility in case of an accident.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said Tokyo also supported a suspension, adding that such a move would not hamper efforts to resume the six-nation talks, the Kyodo news agency reported.
The light-water reactor project long has been despised by conservatives in Congress and the Bush administration, who believe that the Clinton administration was duped by North Korea in the deal.
"They've finally driven the stake into Dracula's chest," said Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, referring to the decision to suspend the reactor project. "But for all the faults [of this project], it exemplified many positive things -- namely, the ability of North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United States to work together to solve North Korea's energy crisis."
Gregg suggested that if a new deal was struck with North Korea, the light-water reactor project might be replaced by a conventional power plant.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit Washington today and Friday to brief U.S. officials on his recent visit to Pyongyang, among other issues.
In Texas, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell praised the Chinese for their cooperation on several issues, including North Korea.
China's influence in recent months has been key in helping to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.
"North Korea is a vivid example of what we do together and how the United States and China are cooperating and working together in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago," Powell said at Texas A&M University.
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this report.