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US Rattles a Tin Cup at Allies To Pay for Oil Due N. Korea

Federal shutdown set back plan to wean Pyongyang off nuclear project

CALL it ''pass the check'' diplomacy.

Members of an international consortium formed to wean North Korea away from potentially dangerous nuclear technology are having a hard time finding the money to provide the country with promised shipments of fuel oil.

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Under a 1994 agreement between the US and North Korea, Washington agreed to take the lead role in funding the oil, which is due by the end of the month. The oil is to be used as an alternative source for heating and electricity.

But the US Congress has only agreed to pay $19 million of the estimated $50 million it will cost to fulfill the terms of the deal this year. The delivery of the $19 million has been delayed by the US budget impasse.

South Korean officials, whose government is playing a central role in the consortium, say they do not know where the rest of the money will come from. ''We are now appealing [to other countries], but the initial response is not positive,'' says a South Korean government official who requested anonymity.

What the South Koreans do know is that the money will not come from them.

The other members of the consortium, says South Korean Foreign Ministry official Kim Sook, ''all know that we are already burdened by our commitments.''

The US ambassador in Tokyo, Walter Mondale, asked Japanese politicians on Monday if they would press their government to provide some of the money. It would be ''difficult and perhaps impossible'' for Japan to provide any major funding, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said in an interview yesterday.

But he says an official decision on a Japanese contribution will wait until yet another group responds to a request for financial help to provide North Korea with fuel oil. ''We have to hear from the Europeans first,'' he says.

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The US last year joined with South Korea and Japan to create the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which is planning to build two light-water nuclear reactors for North Korea. In exchange, the North Koreans have agreed to abandon developing graphite reactors, which can produce weapons-grade plutonium more easily.

The heavy-fuel oil, which can be used for heating and electricity, is intended to tide the North Koreans over until the new reactors are completed.

But KEDO's fuel-oil fund is now down to less than $1 million, according to a KEDO spokesman in New York. US officials are scrambling to find an immediate source of money to purchase oil while KEDO waits for the completion of the Congressional appropriation process.

''There's a short-term problem of the shipments [expected during] the next couple of months,'' US assistant secretary of state Winston Lord said in Washington on Tuesday. ''We have been talking to various countries and particularly Japan [about] whether we can have some short-term help.''

More important, it is unclear which country or countries will provide the balance of the necessary funds over the longer term. ''We've got to find $20 million to $30 million this year that we don't have,'' says the KEDO spokesman in New York, who also declined to be named. ''It's a priority.''

Assuming the consortium finds the money to fulfill its 1996 obligations, it will have to repeat the fundraising process each year until the reactors are completed.

Masao Okonogi, a Korea specialist at Tokyo's Keio University, says ''there is no other option but for someone to pay for the oil.'' If the shipments are disrupted, he adds, ''it would be a breach of promise, and North Korea would react harshly.''

Professor Okonogi says he believes that the current dearth of oil money is not a major problem for KEDO. But he says that officials in South Korea and Japan, whose countries have agreed to fund the reactors at a cost of some $4 billion, are ''dissatisfied with the US requests [for more money] at this time.'' South Korea picks up most of the bill.

The two countries feel that they /are already carrying vastly heavier loads than the US in the KEDO project. The Japanese do not want to make a further overture to the North Koreans without progress toward resuming diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, according to press reports in Tokyo. Discussions between the two countries on resuming diplomatic relations were broken off in 1992.

To hear Mr. Lord and the Japanese official tell it, the best solution lies with Europe.

''If Japan and [South] Korea are going to contribute to Bosnia,'' says Lord, ''Europe can certainly help us out on a nonproliferation issue of global concern.''

France, Germany, and Italy have each pledged to provide KEDO with $1 million to $2 million, according to the South Korean government official. The European Union as a whole, however, has not yet formally responded to a request for funds, the official says.

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