South Korea has offered to supply the North with electric power equivalent to the output of two unfinished nuclear plants if the communist state gives up its nuclear weapons, South Korean officials said Tuesday.
Chung Dong Young, South Korea's unification minister, called the offer a "last chance" for the government in Pyongyang, which in 1994 signed a deal with the Clinton administration for construction of the plants. South Korean officials gave details of the new plan as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived here Tuesday evening on the last leg of an Asian tour.
South Korea also said it would immediately give the North a large infusion of aid, including 500,000 tons of rice as well as raw material for shoes, clothing and soap. Other assistance would help to renovate mines and accelerate the development of rail lines at an industrial park.
The South Korean move represents a new attempt to break a deadlock in international efforts to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The electric power plan was advanced by Chung to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, during a meeting on June 17, and had previously been described only in general terms to U.S. officials.
At a news conference Wednesday morning here, Rice praised the proposal as a "very creative idea" because it would resolve North Korea's energy problems without giving the government access to nuclear power. She said it was a "considerable improvement over where we have ever been" in how to address North Korea's energy needs without creating "significant proliferation risk."
She added that she thought it would be "very easy" to incorporate the South Korean idea into a proposal that the United States made last June at six-nation talks over North Korea's weapons programs. That proposal made a vague offer to study North Korea's energy needs.
In response to a question, Rice rejected the idea that the United States was now willing to reward North Korea before it gives up its nuclear programs. "I have to reject the premise that North Korea needs to get all sorts of benefits before they come back to the table," she said.
She also emphatically said she has no plans to visit Pyongyang, like one of her predecessors, Madeleine K. Albright, in 2000. "The North Korean nuclear problem is not a problem for the United States" but the entire region, she said.
Rice had a two-hour working dinner Tuesday night with Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon of South Korea and held additional talks Wednesday before flying back to Washington. She flew here from Tokyo and also held talks in Beijing, with much of the discussions focused on how to persuade North Korea to give up its weapons programs.
Many analysts believe the South Korean offer was a factor in Pyongyang's recent decision to return to the negotiating table after boycotting the six-nation talks for more than a year. In early June, North Korean authorities told U.S. officials they were ready to return, but they did not set a start date, the week of July 25, until Rice arrived in Beijing on Saturday.
The 2 million kilowatts of electricity available through the plan could be delivered by 2008 after infrastructure is built, Chung said. He said North Korea, which has a decrepit power grid and desperately needs energy assistance, has not directly responded to the proposal.
Much of North Korea is pitch-black at night because of the lack of electricity. But accepting the deal could turn the xenophobic country into a vassal of its neighbor.
In his meeting with the North Korean leader, Chung said that the decade-old, $5 billion project to build light-water reactors in North Korea was dead. U.S. officials have welcomed that statement, on grounds that those facilities, if built, would still pose a proliferation risk. Clinton administration officials have privately said that they agreed to the plan in 1994 only because they thought the North Korean government would collapse before the project was completed.
The South Korean proposal may face domestic hurdles, even if it becomes part of the U.S. offer at the six-nation talks. Chung said South Korea would use $2.4 billion obligated but not spent for the reactors, but analysts said the cost of building an electrical grid for North Korea might far exceed that. The main opposition party immediately criticized the proposal, saying the ruling party had not built public support for the idea.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura in Tokyo, Rice supported South Korea's plans to immediately dispatch aid, saying it responded to a "humanitarian disaster" in North Korea and "does not in any way undercut the talks."
Rice also said she supported Japan's efforts at the six-nation talks to press for answers on North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s. China and South Korea have objected that the issue is a bilateral dispute.
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.