Less than a week after North Korea’s release of a downed American helicopter pilot, the Defense Department said on Thursday that it would begin shipping oil to the country as part of a deal aimed at ending the North’s nuclear weapons program.
That the Pentagon is paying $4.7 million to buy and ship the first 13.5 million gallons of oil to North Korea has angered many Republicans, who have criticized the Clinton administration for propping up a rogue regime.
The accord requires North Korea to freeze and ultimately to dismantle its weapons-grade nuclear program in exchange for $4 billion in economic aid from the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
Seeking to blunt congressional opposition, a senior Defense Department official told reporters on Thursday that the Clinton administration was satisfied that North Korea was so far complying with its commitment to open its existing nuclear complexes to inspection and to store and eventually ship its spent fuel rods, which could be used to make weapons, out of the country.
If that changes, the official said at a briefing, the United States and its allies will halt the shipments of heating oil and ultimately abandon a plan to build two major reactors for North Korea that cannot produce weapons-grade fuel.
The Pentagon official said the Clinton administration chose to negotiate with North Korea last year rather than risk war.
Tensions between the two countries reached a critical point last June when the United States threatened to seek international economic sanctions against the North.
Pentagon officials said that merchant ships would deliver the heating oil - the first of three shipments over the next 22 months - to North Korea before Jan. 21.