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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Battle Over Nuclear Waste

A landmark deal has key diplomatic overtones

By Ajay Singh


ON JAN. 29, JANG Won, leader of the militant Green Korea environmental group, shaved his head and announced a five-day hunger strike in Taipei. With six fellow activists, he then marched on the headquarters of the Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower). Jang's aim was to pressure the state energy monopoly into canceling a $230-million deal to ship up to 200,000 barrels of nuclear waste to North Korea. When angry Taipower workers blocked the protesters' way, a clash broke out -- and Jang was severely beaten. He and his comrades were promptly deported. Undeterred, Jang has continued his strike in front of the Taiwan office in central Seoul. Some 30 other leaders of social and ecological groups have joined Jang, a university professor, in his struggle. "It is inhumane to dump nuclear waste," they declared in a statement. "North Korea will turn into a death zone."

The controversy comes at a time when Seoul, Pyongyang, Washington and Beijing are trying to find ways to reduce 43 years of tension on the Korean peninsula. The shipment of low-level radioactive waste, planned over a two-year period, has also sparked a major diplomatic row between South Korea and Taiwan. Seoul argues that even though Taipower is not violating any international laws in transporting the waste, a number of moral, humanitarian and environmental questions remain. For instance, the quantity of waste is so large -- 80,000 tons -- that it cannot be seen as a purely commercial transaction, as Taipower contends. Instead, the deal should have been made after consultations with Taiwan government authorities. Further, says Seoul, North Korea does not have the administrative and technical capability to dispose of nuclear waste in a manner consistent with international safety standards.

Taipower counters that the project raises few environmental safety concerns as the radioactivity level of the waste -- clothing and other radiation-exposed materials -- is low. Also, the shipment would be made in keeping with international practices. The company says it is satisfied with its field survey of the waste disposal sites located in North Korean coal mines, which are deemed safe for 300 years. By then, argues Taipower, the waste would present no hazard.

Environmentalists are skeptical. If low-level radioactive waste poses no threat, they ask, why does Taipower need to ship it abroad? The answer is that Taiwan's own people are no longer prepared to make their island a dumping ground for nuclear waste. Domestically, the issue has become politically charged. In 1995, residents of offshore Lanyu island blocked shipments to a storage site in the area, which was already choked to capacity. Since then, waste from Taiwan's three nuclear-power plants has been held at a temporary site. With no takers at home, Taipower began negotiating with Russia, China and the Marshall Islands for prospective dumping sites.

The deal with North Korea was unexpected. Pyongyang, lacking foreign exchange to buy food for its people, approached Taipei last September and offered to store Taipower's nuclear waste in its territory, according to a South Korean source. Taiwan quickly sent technical teams to North Korea to make feasibility studies. For a couple of months, the two sides conducted secret talks on the quantity of waste and the price for its transfer. On Jan. 23, the North Koreans sent Taiwan a formal offer to import the material.

The contract has strengthened ties between the two governments, which are faced with growing international isolation. In fact, some analysts believe Taipei may have chosen to do the deal with North Korea to score a point against China, Pyongyang's longtime ally. Recently, Beijing has inflicted diplomatic humiliations on Taipei by persuading South Africa to switch formal recognition to the mainland and by boosting ties with the United States, Taiwan's chief backer.

For its part, North Korea has been keen to make new friends since China opened diplomatic ties with Seoul in 1992. Ironically, Taiwan and South Korea were friends until Beijing began wooing Seoul. Taipei's waste deal with Pyongyang seems to have ruffled feathers in China. The mainland has accused the island of trying to drive a wedge between itself and North Korea. Said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang: "The goal is clear -- to sabotage China's relations with relevant countries."

Although the controversy seems centered on a triangular diplomatic dance, safety is a legitimate concern. Given North Korea's worsening economic woes and its recent drive to raise funds abroad, Pyongyang will be tempted not to spend the money from Taiwan on building safe storage facilities. Instead, some diplomats believe, the funds will be used in a grand celebration this summer to mark the installation of Kim Jong Il as North Korea's president and communist party leader.

-- Reported by Laurie Underwood / Taipei and Laxmi Nakarmi / Seoul


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