In a blow for the USA, a senior figure in South Korea’s government has publicly expressed support for a civil nuclear programme in North Korea.

The move highlights differences between South Korea and Washington, which wants to see the north abandon all of its nuclear ambitions. It is this fundamental difference in position that is thought to be the sticking point in six-national talks in Beijing that are aimed at resolving the issue. China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the US came close to striking an agreement of basic principles at the latest round of talks, but were prevented from doing so by the disagreement of Pyongyang and Washington over a civilian nuclear programme.

South Korea’s unification Minister Chung Dong-young is quoted as saying: “I think North Korea ought to have the right to develop nuclear power plants for peaceful purposes, such as agricultural, medical, and energy-generating ones.” However, he did advocate the communist neighbour give up plans to develop two light water reactors in a US-backed programme that is currently suspended saying: “It is a core precondition to Seoul’s latest offer of massive energy to North Korea,” a reference to South Korea’s pledge of 2 GW of power on abandonment of its nuclear weapons programme.

The so-called Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), consisting of the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the US, signed an agreement on the supply of two pressurised light-water reactors in December 1995 but has decided to continue the suspension of the Light Water Reactor (LWR) Project at Shinpo, South Hamkyong Province for another year. The programme came about under a 1994 deal known as the Agreed Framework, but the accord collapsed in 2002 when the US accused North Korea of pushing nuclear arms by mounting an uranium enrichment programme, a move that triggered the current crisis.

Nonetheless, the US is said to be hopeful that a deal could emerge from the talks by September, although has stressed that Pyongyang must get out of the “nuclear weapons business.” The talks, involving Russia, China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and North Korea are due to resume on 29 August in Beijing.

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