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Purpose of NK Reactor Shutdown Unclear: FM

Korea Times | April 20 2005

South Korea’s top diplomatic official said Tuesday it is difficult at present to verify the reason why North Korea suspended operation of its key nuclear reactor, whose spent fuel rods could be used to extract plutonium for atomic bombs.

``For now, it is difficult to confirm whether the North halted the reactor to unload spent fuel rods or for technical reasons,’’ Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Ban Ki-moon said at a session of the National Assembly’s Unification-Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee.

He added the government has been examining intelligence ``with many possibilities in mind’’ in order to figure out the reality of the situation, which has added a sense of urgency to resolving the 30-month North Korean nuclear problem.

On Monday, Seoul confirmed media reports that operation of the 5-megawatt reactor at the North’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, some 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang, has stopped. A senior diplomat said Seoul is closely cooperating with Washington on the intelligence.

With few means at hand to clarify with certainty what is happening in the secretive nation, South Korean officials showed a cautious attitude, raising the possibility that the reactor might have been halted for ``technical reasons.’’

Minister Ban dismissed as speculation recent news reports that former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri plans to pass on an important message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to President Roh Moo-hyun.

``We’ve checked that through our mission in Indonesia. It has been found to be untrue,’’ he said in reply to an opposition lawmaker’s questions.

As the six-party talks have stalled for almost 10 months, the media entertained various speculations and scenarios on the nuclear dispute, including Chinese President Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit to Pyongyang and a possible inter-Korean summit.

Yesterday’s parliamentary session, became a heated debate as lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties clashed over such controversial issues as the Roh administration’s ``balancer’’ strategy in Northeast Asia and the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

``President Roh is ruining the South Korea-U.S. alliance with attacks at pro-American figures as well as his balancer strategy,’’ Rep. Hong Joon-pyo of the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) said, asking Minister Ban what the ``balancer’’ really means.

Rep. Park Sung-vum, who is also from the conservative GNP, branded Roh’s policy as a typical ``populism’’ based on nationalistic ideology.

The ruling Uri Party’s counteroffensive was no less belligerent than the opposition’s attacks. Uri Party’s Rep. Im Jong-seok said Roh’s criticism was directed at conservative forces represented by the GNP. ``It is the GNP itself that really harms the nation’s interests.’’

The debate on pro- and anti-Americanism was triggered by the conservative’s attack against Roh who complained about some people, who he described as ``more American than Americans’’ during his visit to Turkey last week.

``I feel most troubled by those Koreans who think and speak in more pro-American ways than even Americans do,’’ he was quoted as saying.

``What President Roh has in mind is that the Republic of Korea should removing causes for instability in Northeast Asia and play an active role as a balancer in the region by strengthening its traditional alliance with the United States,’’ Ban told lawmakers.