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Power Plant Experiment in N. Korea Implements Terms of Nuclear Pact

By Sonni Efron
Los Angeles Times
KUMHO, North Korea

Rusting boats and stilled cranes line the piers of the dilapidated port of Yanghwa on North Korea's remote northeastern coast.

The clothing and umbrellas of the few people on the dock are drab. The red paint on the party slogans atop the somber concrete warehouses is faded. The only bright, well-maintained object in sight is a huge portrait of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, who died three years ago.

The isolation, the time warp and the ideology gap are daunting to some of the 67 South Korean construction workers and engineers who have set up shop here. In an experiment in constructive engagement, they are to build two nuclear power plants for energy-starved North Korea, in exchange for Pyongyang's freezing of its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The South Korean workers will spend at least a year in Kumho, where they have found themselves inside a hermetically sealed enclave inside an already hermetic, xenophobic North Korea. Contact with the locals is limited to those who work in the Soviet-style guest house near the reactor site or on the reactor itself.

When the outsiders are driven anywhere, "there are little guys with Volvos that go ahead of us on the road and shoo the people away so we're exposed to the minimum number of people," one diplomatic source said.

The foreigners - here with a handful of South Korean, American and Japanese officials working with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO - did see one program about KEDO on the single North Korean television station, which usually features singing soldiers, old war movies and traditional dramas. And those here who were involved in negotiating the project report unanimously that relations with their North Korean counterparts steadily are improving.

Still, jogging through the sandy pine forests here is not permitted, and foreigners must be escorted to swim or dig for clams in the ocean. The beach is cut off from the reactor site by a large, sandy berm, apparently fortified to protect against an invasion.

The concrete housing used by the foreigners originally was built for Soviet workers who once were expected to build a reactor here, and it has hot water for only two hours a day. But living conditions are expected to improve once the South Koreans build a new dormitory and recreation center, complete with billiard halls, karaoke parlors and satellite TV.

Park Young Chul, the South Korean director of the KEDO division of the Korean Electric Power Corp, the main contractor, called Kumho "a big jail without a fence" but nevertheless plans to spend two years here, joining his family in South Korea only once every three months. "I am worried about divorce," he confided.