Upping the stakes in a confrontation with North Korea, President Bush yesterday decided to halt future shipments of heavy fuel oil to the energy-starved nation unless it takes verifiable steps to dismantle a newly disclosed program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
The decision, made at a meeting with the National Security Council, came after weeks of consultation and discussion with Japan, South Korea and the European Union, which are also members of the consortium that provides the oil to North Korea. U.S. officials said they expect the other members to agree, and a decision will be formally announced when the executive board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization meets in New York today.
KEDO is expected to permit a ship making this month's delivery of fuel oil to complete its journey, but a mid-December shipment would be canceled unless North Korea accedes to international demands.
Under a 1994 bilateral accord, North Korea agreed to suspend operation of nuclear reactors capable of producing weapons-grade material and to place plutonium already produced under international safeguards. In return, the United States agreed, among other things, to supply Pyongyang with regular shipments of fuel oil, totaling 3.3 million barrels (500,000 metric tons) a year. Under a separate accord, Japan, South Korea and the United States agreed to construct two light-water reactors to generate electricity.
But North Korea last month admitted that it had begun a program to enrich uranium, in violation of previous accords, and that the 1994 pact was "nullified.''
Since then, U.S. officials have pressed hard to end the fuel deliveries, but the KEDO board operates on consensus. Some officials supported ordering the ship carrying about 43,000 metric tons of oil to turn around.
But Bush yesterday concluded that halting the ship was such a provocative step that Pyongyang might react rashly, such as evicting international inspectors and restarting its nuclear reactors. "We didn't want to do something so they lose face," one official explained.
Another official said that U.S. officials will inform their allies that if they do not agree to stop December's delivery, the United States will not support completion of the November shipment. "We want to make it crystal clear that this is it,'' he said.