SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has been taking equipment left at a nuclear reactor site that was mothballed when an international consortium halted work on grounds the communist state was breaking an agreement, a news report said on Wednesday.
If the report is true, the looting would be in defiance of a deal the North reached in the 1990s with regional powers and could cloud a recent push to restart international disarmament-for-aid discussions.
Billions of dollars were poured into the project to build two relatively proliferation-resistant light water reactors for the North in return for a promise to freeze its nuclear plant that produces arms-grade plutonium. The deal was halted in 2002 with a third of the work finished.
North Korea may have used some of the more than 200 pieces of heavy equipment taken from the site in the country's northeast to stage a nuclear test in May, South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said, quoting government officials.
"The removal of equipment without taking steps to settle financial issues is a clear violation of the agreement and can be construed as theft," one official was quoted as saying.
South Korea bore the majority of the costs spent on the project arising from a deal called the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 by the United States and North Korea. A consortium called KEDO to build the nuclear plants also grew out of the deal.
Equipment left behind at the site is valued at 45.5 billion won ($39 million), including cranes and bulldozers and nearly 200 trucks and other vehicles, the JoongAng Ilbo said.
Most of the 6,500 tons of steel and 32 tons of cement left behind has also been taken from the site by the destitute North, which is desperately short of building material.
South Korea's foreign ministry could not confirm the report but said it has asked the North every year for confirmation of KEDO's rights to the equipment. The North has said nothing would be allowed to be shipped out until the project is restarted and complete.
North Korea was hit by U.N. sanctions after its nuclear test in May that experts said further squeezed its already broken finances and may be pushing it back to stalled talks on ending its atomic ambitions in the hopes of winning aid.
North Korea indicated it may be ready to resume dialogue after the first envoy sent by U.S. President Barack Obama visited Pyongyang this month for talks.
In an incident that could increase tension, North Korea on Tuesday said it was holding a U.S. citizen who crossed into the state.
The North may use the arrest of activist Robert Park, who said he was crossing into the state to raise awareness about its human rights abuses, as a bargaining chip with Washington in the nuclear talks, analysts said.
(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Dean Yates)