|President Moon Jae-in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the border truce village of Panmunjeom during their summit on April 27, 2018. / Korea Times file
By Kang Seung-woo
Allegations that the government planned to assist North Korea build a nuclear power plant are expected to raise concerns with the new U.S. administration over inter-Korean projects sought by South Korea, according to diplomatic observers, Tuesday, although they said they do not buy into the claims.
President Moon Jae-in faces allegations that he offered to build the plant in North Korea as part of cross-border reconciliation projects during his April 2018 summit with the North's leader Kim Jong-un. The opposition parties are denouncing the alleged offer as an "act benefitting the enemy."
The government flatly denies the claims, with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy unveiling an internal document to reaffirm that it had merely reviewed some ideas for possible inter-Korean economic cooperation projects after the summit. The government said Moon only offered economic projects the two Koreas could cooperate on if denuclearization talks progressed.
The U.S. government has yet to comment on the allegations. But President Joe Biden and his team could be concerned about the Moon administration's push to engage the North through means Washington may find unpalatable.
"In the past the U.S. has put energy assistance for North Korea on the table to try to convince Pyongyang to move ahead with denuclearization. But I think that the Biden administration will want to consult more closely with South Korea than the Donald Trump administration ever did regarding potential inter-Korean economic cooperation," Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor of international relations at King's College London, told The Korea Times.
"Thus, the South Korean government will have to openly discuss with the Biden administration this and other potential projects, even if they are only at the planning stage."
If the nuclear power plant proposal was part of an extensive list of economic and infrastructure projects that the Moon administration considered offering Pyongyang, Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, said the proposals would have violated international sanctions had they been implemented.
"The U.S. government became so concerned with Seoul's efforts that it directly contacted South Korean government agencies, banks, and businesses to remind them of existing laws," Klingner told The Korea Times.
In response to the allegations, Foreign Minister nominee Chung Eui-yong said, Tuesday, there were no discussions about building a nuclear power plant during inter-Korean talks.
"In the current circumstances, no country can offer to build a nuclear power plant, so we had no internal review on the issue and no discussions with North Korea about it," Chung told reporters. Chung was the chief of the National Security Office at the time and participated in the summit.
He also said that the government told the U.S. multiple times about the inter-Korean projects that were detailed and stored on a USB stick that President Moon gave to the North Korean leader.
"It was a plan to implement if North Korea moved ahead with denuclearization and the U.S. fully agreed with the idea and showed a positive response to it," Chung said, adding he showed the content of the USB to his then-U.S. counterpart John Bolton.
He added the U.S. also offered a similar idea to the North during a summit between former President Donald Trump and Kim in Singapore in 2018.
Nuclear plant accusation 'unrealistic'
The opposition camp also claims that the Moon administration was proceeding with the plan surreptitiously, without informing the U.S. or the United Nations.
However, experts said it would have been impossible to build a large-scale nuclear plant without commercial satellite imagery detecting it ― let alone without consent from the U.S. and the international community.
"A nuclear reactor is visible to overhead satellites, thus it would be hard concealing such a program," Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks, told The Korea Times.
"Personally, I believe the ROK would discuss any such program with the U.S., given our allied relationship and partnership in pursuing a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue with North Korea." The ROK refers to the Republic of Korea, South Korea's official name.
In the past, the Korea Energy Development Organization was building two light water reactors in the North Korean city of Kumho, although the project was suspended in late 2002 when North Korea was found to be processing highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. In addition, the joint statement from the six-party talks in September 2005 also talked about energy assistance to the North, DeTrani added.
Pardo also said, "There have been multiple discussions about potential inter-Korean economic projects over the years and certainly under the Moon administration. In this context, I'm not particularly surprised that there could have been discussions about potentially building a nuclear reactor in North Korea to supply energy to South Korea.
"But I think that claiming that South Korea could build a nuclear reactor in North Korea without the international community, or South Korean civil society, realizing it is far-fetched," he said.
"Building a nuclear reactor involves thousands of workers and dozens of companies. It is not realistic to think that there wouldn't have been any leaks in relation to this plan, or that satellite surveillance wouldn't have caught the plan."