NEW YORK – The United States (search), South Korea (search), Japan (search) and the European Union decided Friday to suspend construction of two nuclear reactors in North Korea (search), which is suspected of secretly developing atomic weapons.
The four are members of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization executive board, which had been building the light-water reactors under a 1994 deal between the United States and North Korea. The reactors were meant to come online in 2007.
The suspension will be for one year, the board said in a statement from its New York headquarters, announcing a decision reached earlier this month.
However, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Thursday the U.S. position was that "there's no future for the reactor project."
The light-water reactors, difficult to adapt to nuclear weapons production, were meant to replace three North Korean reactors that are able to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea has said it is enriching uranium, which could be used in bombs. Most security analysts believe the communist nation has reprocessed enough plutonium from spent fuel rods to make at least two bombs and fear it may be stepping up weapons production.
The future of the $4.6 billion reactor project came into question when it became apparent a year ago that North Korea was violating a 1994 agreement to cease any nuclear weapons programs.
Japan said it hoped Friday's announcement would force North Korea to reconsider its nuclear ambitions, noting the KEDO board could decide to resume construction at any time so long as Pyongyang made clear it was abandoning its weapons program.
"We'd certainly hope to see a positive response from North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons development program in an irreversible, complete, and verifiable manner," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiro Okuyama.
In Seoul, a senior South Korean official said he hoped the decision would not hinder prospects for a fresh round of six-nation talks aimed at dismantling the communist state's suspected nuclear weapons programs.
"We wish that the nuclear dispute can be resolved quickly through the six-nation talks, so that the project in North Korea can be resumed in one year's time," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, North Korea on Friday berated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for calling its regime "evil," and accused Washington of deception.
The statement came as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly wrapped up an Asian tour and left for Washington to further coordinate policy amid hopes for a second round of the six-nation talks.
"Recently the Bush administration is talking about offering a security guarantee for our country, but the slander by Rumsfeld, who leads the U.S. policy, shows that the 'security guarantee' is nothing more than a play aimed at deceiving us," KCNA, the North's official news agency, said in a commentary. The commentary was monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
This shows that it is only right "for us to increase the nuclear deterrent force," KCNA said.
North Korea has accused Washington of planning a pre-emptive attack against it, after labeling the communist country part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq.
On Friday, Kelly met his South Korean counterpart, Assistant Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck, for a second day in the South Korean capital, Seoul. They discussed security assurances for North Korea, one of Pyongyang's key conditions for abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
Kelly made a quick tour of Asia this week amid efforts to hold another round of the nuclear talks involving the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia. He visited Tokyo and Beijing before coming to Seoul.
Diplomatic efforts to resume the six-nation conference gained speed last month after North Korea agreed "in principle" to return to the negotiating table. Pyongyang also dropped its demand for a nonaggression treaty with Washington, saying it would consider President Bush's offer for written security assurances from the United States and North Korea's neighbors.
The first six-nation conference in August ended without an agreement on when to meet again.
Upon arrival in South Korea on Wednesday, Kelly said it was uncertain whether a second round of six-nation talks will take place next month. South Korean officials have said the talks could be held Dec. 17-18.