SEOUL, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- The South Korean government is split over the Bush administration's decision to suspend oil assistance to North Korea in response to Pyongyang's violation of a pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.
The Unification Ministry, which is responsible for South Korea's dealings with North Korea, has urged the United States to honor its side of a 1994 deal and continue sending fuel oil to the North, for fear that a U.S. tougher stance may undermine the inter-Korean reconciliation process.
However, the Foreign Ministry is blaming the Unification Ministry's moves for hurting the country's policy coordination efforts with the United States and other allies in dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
A dispute erupted this week as Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said his government has maintained the position that U.S. oil shipments should continue at least until early next year despite concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
Jeong also said that Seoul, Washington and Tokyo had been at odds over whether to continue the provision of fuel oil to North Korea.
"The United States wants a prompt halt to the oil shipment, while Japan insists suspension should not be considered until after the November shipment is sent," Jeong said in a policy speech.
Jeong's remarks came just ahead of a crucial meeting with the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union to discuss the oil shipments. The Unification Ministry has insisted on trying to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue with the North but is facing domestic criticism that it was playing down the issue in order to safeguard reconciliation talks with Pyongyang.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement to rebut the unification minister's remarks, in a rare case of Cabinet-level infighting.
"Minister Jeong's statement was no more than his personal view and does not represent the Seoul government's position," said the Foreign Ministry statement read by spokesman Sok Dong-yon.
"We regretted that the minister (Jeong) said there are differences in opinion among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo regarding the fuel oil supply to North Korea," a senior Foreign Ministry official told United Press International. "We are maintaining close policy coordination with Washington."
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the ministry issued the statement so as not to irritate Washington, which wants to suspend the oil provision despite opposition from Seoul.
Officials said the United States has decided to halt heavy fuel oil shipments to North Korea mandated by a 1994 pact. The oil-assistance program will end after delivery of a shipment of 42,000 tons of oil on a tanker heading to North Korea.
Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea pledged to freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for 500,000 tons a year of heavy fuel oil and the construction of two light-water reactors by the KEDO international consortium, comprised of the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union.
But the deal is in danger of collapse in the wake of Pyongyang's recent admission of a uranium-enrichment program for nuclear weapons purposes and Washington's decision to discontinue 8-year-old oil assistance program.
South Koreans are concerned that a collapse of the accord may bring about a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.