Nuclear Inspections in North Korea

Dec 28, 2002 04:06 PM EST

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- International Atomic Energy Agency monitors will leave North Korea on Tuesday, complying with the communist nation's decision to expel them and restart its frozen nuclear programs.

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei told CNN that North Korea could be producing weapons grade plutonium "in the next month or two."

"It's a country in a defiant mode right now," ElBaradei said. "The attitude there (is) if they use their nuclear capability they might get a better negotiating position."

The IAEA decided to comply with the expulsion because Pyongyang had not responded to a letter ElBaradei wrote asking North Korea to allow the remaining two inspectors to remain at the Yongbyon plant to install seals and cameras.

North Korea announced Friday it decided to expel the inspectors and resume reprocessing spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon plant, a facility capable of making weapons-grade plutonium.

In a sign that the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is of growing concern to the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, the president's national security team discussed the issue Friday at the White House.

Deputy State Department Spokesman Philip Reeker called getting rid of the inspectors "another violation of IAEA safeguard agreements."

He reiterated White House calls for the DPRK to "reverse its current course ... and take all steps necessary to come into compliance."

A senior State Department official hinted that James Kelley, assistant secretary of state for East Asian Affairs, will probably soon go to Seoul.

The official predicted the IAEA would appeal to the U.N. Security Council to call for action against North Korea over violation of the safeguard agreements. "It is their mandate, they are required to report violations," the official said.

The IAEA is expected to decide its strategy on North Korea during a meeting scheduled for January 6.

The United States believes that North Korea has already built at least three nuclear warheads. There is enough plutonium at the Yongbyon plant to build at least two more, U.S. officials estimate.

Last weekend, North Korea started removing the safety seals and blocked surveillance cameras placed by international monitoring agencies at facilities in Yongbyon.

The IAEA said Wednesday that North Korea had begun to move new fuel rods into the reactor, but added there was no indication that the North Koreans had moved enough new fuel rods into the facility to restart the reactor.

But, ElBaradei said, that will likely change in the next two months.

"We will have to start seriously worrying in about a month from now," he said.

"This is a defining moment for the non-proliferation movement," he added. "I hope in the next month or two, before they embark on the restarting of their program ... that diplomacy will be set at work and that we will be able to divert what is now looking like a serious crisis situation."

North Korea says it is being forced to restart the reactors because the United States has not honored the "Agreed Framework" between the two nations, which froze the North Korean nuclear program.

By Albert H. Lee
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