A U.S. envoy attending a ceremony in North Korea to mark the start of work on two western-financed nuclear reactors told Pyongyang on Wednesday it must now honor its side of the bargain.
Pouring concrete for the power plant foundations had symbolism well beyond the remote construction site at Kumho, on North Korea's east coast.
The multinational KEDO consortium is building the two light-water reactors under a 1994 U.S.-North Korean deal which froze the North's suspected nuclear weapons program in exchange for the reactors and annual supplies of fuel oil.
"Today's concrete-pouring is a milestone which shows that this project, essential to establishing peace on the Korean peninsula, is firmly set on its course, despite having faced many difficulties and setbacks," Chang Seung-sup, chairman of KEDO's executive board, said in a speech.
U.S. delegate to KEDO Jack Pritchard, the most senior Washington official to visit the North since then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright in late 2000, said it was now North Korea's turn to deliver.
Pritchard said in a speech that Wednesday's ceremony and the work completed were hard evidence of U.S. seriousness, and that of KEDO (the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization), in keeping their end of the 1994 Agreed Framework.
"It is now time for us to see the same kind of tangible progress by the DPRK in meeting its commitments," Pritchard said.
The DPRK is the acronym for North Korea's official title, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"The path is clear, and the schedule is demanding," he said in points made by the European Union and Japanese delegates.
Under a U.S.-North Korean agreement in 1994, the consortium was to build the reactors to meet the communist country's desperate need for power. In exchange, the North said it would freeze its suspected nuclear weapons program and allow international scrutiny.
The so-called Agreed Framework averted the threat of war on the Korean peninsula, but North Korea has yet to open its facilities to inspections by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
North Korea "must start meaningful cooperation now with the IAEA and must comply with all of its obligations under the Agreed Framework," Pritchard said.
The CIA suspects the North might have stockpiled enough plutonium to make one or two atomic bombs. North Korea denies it.
Pritchard said the North's failure to allow inspections, which would take three to four years to complete, could undermine the $4.6 billion project. Political tension and funding problems have delayed the project by several years, prompting harsh criticism from North Korea.
Wednesday's event -- complete with fireworks and ceremonial lowering of a hopper of wet cement into the cavernous foundations -- came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity on the peninsula, which has been bitterly divided since the 1950-53 Korean War.
There is the additional unspoken irony of a U.S.-based agency building nuclear reactors in a country U.S. President George W. Bush has branded part of an "axis of evil" for trying to develop and proliferate weapons of mass destruction.
The deal was struck under the Clinton administration but Bush has continued to allow funding despite his reservations about North Korea's Communist leadership.
Pritchard said there was continuity rather than contradiction in the Bush administration supporting the project.
Pritchard said the IAEA estimated its checks would take at least three to four years.
"That means the DPRK must start meaningful cooperation now," he said. "This is vital for the health of the project.
"It makes no sense, for KEDO or for the DPRK, to push forward to completion of the first reactor just to stop work for years as the DPRK only then begins to deliver on their safeguard obligations under the Agreed Framework," Pritchard said.
The ceremonial concrete-pouring marked a key step after years spent removing a mountain and digging a deep bed.
South Korea, which produces some 40 percent of its electricity using nuclear power, is providing its technology for the two reactors, which could eventually account for a similar proportion of the North's needs.
KEDO's executive board has representatives from the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Representatives of the board and other contributing countries watched the ceremony, along with several North Korean officials, who made no speeches and declined to speak to reporters.
Charles Kartman, KEDO's executive director, said the ceremony underscored the importance of an agreement that had "defanged" a big threat on the peninsula.
"Let's not forget that in 1994 the two sides were drifting in the direction of a bloody war," he told reporters.