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South Korea offers energy aid to North if it abandons nuclear arms

SEOUL, South Korea—South Korea said Tuesday that it had offered to provide North Korea with a massive infusion of electricity and lay power lines into the impoverished nation if it agreed to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

The proposal, announced as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Seoul for consultations, is part of a package designed to jump-start international negotiations with North Korea that are to resume later this month.

It appeared to be one of the largest offers ever of assistance from capitalist South Korea to the communist North. The nations have been separated since the closing days of World War II and fought a devastating war from 1950 to 1953.

"In order to resolve the nuclear issue, we are willing to transmit power to North Korea if the North agrees on the dismantlement," Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young told a news conference.

"I hope that this offer will provide a crucial momentum for the resolution of North Korea's nuclear issue and for the settlement of peace on the Korean peninsula," Chung said.

It remains unclear whether North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear arms programs, one of the few strategic cards it has to play.

North Korea agreed Saturday to return to the six-nation talks on dismantling its nuclear programs after a 13-month hiatus.

The other nations involved—China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States—are discussing ways to entice Pyongyang to make what Rice called a "strategic decision" to abandon nuclear arms.

South Korea consistently has been more willing than Tokyo or Washington to offer inducements to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

In another sign of improving relations between the Koreas, the government of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun also announced Tuesday that it was providing 500,000 tons of food aid to North Korea, without strings attached.

Coordinating a joint strategy toward Pyongyang has proved to be nearly impossible for the other nations in the talks. Japan, for instance, wants the fate of its citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s on the agenda.

Rice, during an earlier stop Tuesday in Tokyo, said the United States didn't oppose the new food aid.

"The South Koreans' decision to respond in particular to the really miserable humanitarian situation of the North Korean people does not in any way undercut talks," she said at a news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.

The Bush administration recently announced its own donation of 50,000 tons of food aid, she noted.

Chung conveyed the electricity offer to Kim in a meeting in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on June 10 and later briefed Rice on it in Washington.

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Roh's government would extend power lines into North Korea and provide more than 2 million kilowatts of power beginning in 2008. In the meantime, if the North agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, it would receive supplies of heavy fuel oil.

President Bush came into office opposed to rewarding North Korea for abandoning nuclear arms, and harshly critical of former President Clinton's engagement of the regime in Pyongyang. Bush's administration has softened that policy significantly over time.

The electricity provided under South Korea's proposal would replace two light-water nuclear-power reactors that the United States, Japan and South Korea were to have built in North Korea under a 1994 disarmament agreement. That project was abandoned after the United States accused Pyongyang in 2002 of violating the agreement by secretly enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.

Rice, in an interview with Japan's Nippon Television, said "North Korea is improving its nuclear capability" while the six-nation talks have foundered. "And so we have to have some evidence that the North is really prepared to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons," she said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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