January 8 marks 15 years to the day that the last ship carrying the last group of workers from the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) light water reactor project left the small harbor serving the construction site on North Korea’s northeast coast and headed home to the South Korean port of Sokcho. Unlikely, I realize, that anyone will mark the anniversary, except perhaps some of us who huddled on the stern of the fast ferry Hankyoreh, watching in mute disbelief as the project site—hundreds of acres of South Korean engineering and construction marvel (including a driving range and two churches), floodlit 24 hours a day using enough power to light a small city, all in easy sight of the North Koreans living nearby and many others who traveled up the east coast railway— slipped from view in the cold, gray afternoon. Maybe even a few of the North Koreans who stood sadly on the pier, waving their caps as the ship pulled away, will recall how they were witness to the final end to a decades-long effort at cooperation.
Does it really matter, thinking back to the day? After all, didn’t KEDO fail? Isn’t it only one of a series of failures in dealing with North Korea over the past 25 years?
No, in fact, KEDO did not fail. In those days of anything-but-Clinton, the Bush administration pushed it off a cliff. In the organization’s four-party Executive Board (US, Japan, ROK and European Union), Washington led the way, Tokyo was close behind, then, only reluctantly, did the South Koreans join the band. If anything, up to the end, the Europeans were the most sensible of the lot.
We all pretty much sensed that KEDO was in trouble from the moment the Bush administration took office in January 2001. Still, it was a constant surprise to watch Washington’s extreme short-sightedness as the tragedy unfolded. The biggest surprise of all in KEDO’s New York headquarters came when in September 2005, we learned that Ambassador Christopher Hill, at the very meeting finalizing the Six Party Joint Statement, had announced that “the United States supports a decision to terminate KEDO by the end of the year.” Jaws dropped open.
When KEDO, at US insistence, ceased work on the two light water reactors in 2004, it began “preservation and maintenance” of the project’s assets in case Washington came to its senses, and a decision was made to resume work, or at least use KEDO’s positive relations with the DPRK to further the broader diplomatic efforts. In the process, KEDO slowly drew down its workforce and, where possible, removed equipment. That was feasible as long as the North Koreans accepted the fiction that KEDO wasn’t really dead, and Pyongyang continued to abide by the formal protocols it had signed with KEDO on, among other things, transportation and protection for the workers (primarily from South Korean subcontractors). But with Ambassador Hill’s announcement, things changed abruptly. There had been no coordination, no warning from Washington this statement was coming, and thus no opportunity to prepare the ground ahead of time with the North Koreans. We still had workers at the site. We were still reviewing evacuation plans. And now, we had been left hanging.
Over a decade earlier, in October 1994 when the Agreed Framework was signed, KEDO had been only words on paper. The eventual construction site for two light water reactors was nothing but scrub vegetation and struggling farmland. By 2002, the place had been totally transformed into a small village for hundreds of South Korean workers, who had had to import via sea every pipe, every wire, every nail and screw in order to build the infrastructure before moving to the vast foundation work for the first of the reactors. During that period, factories in Japan and South Korea (who—not the DPRK—were receiving virtually all of the several billion dollars spent on the reactors) were fabricating parts for the reactors, while the North Koreans tapped to operate the reactors visited similar reactors and production facilities overseas, and learned about safe reactor operation from South Korean and international nuclear safety experts.
Was it all glass smooth? Ha! Problems big and small with the North Koreans were constant. But we learned to work through them, to negotiate the impasses and not simply stay stuck in them, using direct communication links with the North Korean nuclear agency and frequent meetings with its officials, both at the site and in Pyongyang. The KEDO secretariat, on Third Avenue in Manhattan, had to deal with not only the North. Trying to get the four participating governments to grasp the complexity of a ballet involving diplomatic, political, technical, and commercial elements was maddening at times. The secretariat’s preparations for Executive Board meetings, never easy, became horror shows as Washington and then Tokyo made clear they wanted to pull down the organization.
KEDO was a working multilateral effort that went far beyond anything accomplished since. There is simply no way of knowing if continued progress on the reactor construction could have slowed, or even stopped the North’s nuclear program. The North needed an expensive upgrade to its grid if it were itself to use the electricity from the reactors. (Until the grid was completed, it was theoretically possible for the North to have sold the new capacity to the South.) In addition, the US Senate had to approve a nuclear cooperation agreement before key components for the reactors could be delivered. Someone had to pull an insurance rabbit out of a hat to satisfy liability concerns by the suppliers of the reactors’ major components.
At the same time, perhaps now, as policies are being reviewed in Washington, it would be useful to recall that as important as the reactor project may have been for Kim Jong Il’s economic plans, it was still more important to him as tangible evidence of a long-term US commitment to transform US-DPRK relations. It was abundantly clear in the Bush administration’s first term that Washington had no such policy, but sustaining KEDO in some form, putting its considerable experience in dealing with the North to good use, would have preserved a resource for use when Washington pulled out of its policy nosedive. Having the reactor project nearing completion would have been effective leverage at the negotiating table. Pyongyang had heard words and more words about a bright future if it would only do this or that. The reactor project was something real. Kim could travel on the North’s east coast railway, which went so close to the KEDO project, and actually see its progress. What might Kim have done if he had been faced with a REAL—not a dreamy, rhetorical— choice? What if the choice had been getting the electricity flowing, or keeping his nuclear weapons program, a program which at that point still had not tested a single nuclear device?