6 August 6, 2002 – This week, workers in North Korea will pour concrete in a ceremony signalling a new phase in the construction of a US-led nuclear-power project that has been the subject of repeated delays.

Political tension and financial problems have beset the $4.6bn project, prompting protests from North Korea. Some critics have said the project should be scrapped because of North Korea’s refusal to allow outside inspections of its home-made nuclear facilities. A US-led consortium – the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization – hopes North Korea’s recent efforts to resume dialogue with its historical foes will help the project move forward.

Weeks after a deadly navel clash June 29, the communist North said it was open to talks with South Korea. Officials of the two sides met in the North over the weekend and agreed to restart high-level talks, reviving the stalled reconciliation process. Also, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun met at a regional-security forum in Brunei last week and both spoke in favour of dialogue.

“That meeting is having a positive effect on the prospect of defusing a looming security crisis next year as well as the reactor project itself,” said Chang Sun Sup, the chief South Korean delegate to the consortium.

Mr. Chang said he hoped Wednesday’s concrete-pouring ceremony, at ChM in North Korea’s northeastern coastal region, will assure North Koreans that the project is moving ahead.

Construction has been hampered by military and political tension and funding problems. Work has been restricted to ground-levelling and excavation, but concrete will be laid this week for a building that will house a reactor.

About 150 US, Japanese, South Korean and European Union diplomats and journalists will attend the event.

In 1993, North Korea shocked the world by quitting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty amid suspicions it was developing nuclear weapons. After a crisis that many observers say brought the Korean peninsula to the brink of war, the North reversed its decision and signed a deal with the U.S., under which it froze its nuclear program in exchange for two Western-developed light-water reactors. The impoverished North needs the reactors to alleviate its energy shortages.

The deal called for the completion of the reactors next year, though that date has been pushed back by several years. The agreement also requires North Korea to allow outside inspections of its nuclear facilities before important reactor components are delivered.

The consortium – with members also including South Korea, Japan and the EU – demands that inspection start in 2003 at the latest because the first reactor vessel is slated to be delivered that year.

The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency is backing the consortium’s demand, saying such inspections usually take three to four years. Citing project delays, the North hasn’t agreed.