Will S. Korea proposal energize nuclear talks?

South Korea offered to supply North Korea with 2 million kilowatts of electricity.

No sooner had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed here Tuesday, on the last leg of her Asian swing, than South Korea announced what she described Wednesday as a "very creative idea" to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program.

The proposal would supply 2 million kilowatts of electricity - half the foundering North's total energy needs - to be delivered across the demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas for decades.

Rice's measured response suggest that differences still exist between Seoul and Washington, which is committed to taking a hard line toward North Korea but is eager to smooth over any sign of a rift with South Korea in the South's pursuit of Korean reconciliation. While repeatedly insisting on her trip that North Korea give up its weapons program as a prerequisite for further aid, Rice said the South's proposal would be "very easy" to include in six-party discussions, which the North agreed this weekend to rejoin at the end of the month.

So far North Korea has given no real clue of how it will respond. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has frequently reaffirmed his desire for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, only to backtrack on his word. Meanwhile, analysts maintain that nuclear parity with the US is the North's ultimate goal.

"North Korea wants to be a nuclear power," says Choi Jin Wook, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "It wants to negotiate with the United States on that basis."

South Koreans see the latest proposal as crucial to a deal that would replace the 1994 Geneva agreement, under which North Korea stopped making warheads with plutonium. That agreement unraveled after the North in October 2002 acknowledged a separate program for building warheads with uranium. North Korea says it has resumed production of plutonium warheads but denies the existence of the uranium program.

Under the circumstances, analysts see little possibility that North Korea will quickly embrace the South Korean plan.

Mr. Choi questions whether North Korea will agree to a proposal that would place it at the mercy of the South for half its energy needs.

"North Korea would be dependent on South Korea," he says. "If things are ever going a different way, if North Korea does not give up its nuclear program, [South Korea] can't supply electricity. So our proposal is very sensitive."

Others here criticize the program, which would cost approximately $5 billion, as a burden that South Korea can ill afford.

"We are not so rich as to support North Korea," says Kim Dae Doo, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, affiliated with the defense ministry. "We have lots to solve in [South] Korean society."

The deal will likely cost more than the price of simply installing the generators and power lines. As part of the offer, South Korea also proposes investing in mines in North Korea and then importing valuable North Korean minerals.

The United States and other countries would also have to agree to resume shipment of heavy fuel oil to the North until the electricity began to flow across the DMZ.

That's a package that South Korean officials are convinced will lead North Korea to make a deal. "They've been asking for electricity since 2000," says Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon. "That was even before the crisis started."

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