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North Korea Re-Opens Nuclear Facilities, Agency Says

BY Admin  December 24, 2002 at 1:45 PM EDT

The North Korean government warned of impending “uncontrollable catastrophe” if the U.S. continues to rebuff demands for talks.

North Korea has “cut most of the seals and impeded the functioning of surveillance equipment installed at both the fuel rod fabrication plant and the reprocessing facility,” Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, announced in a press release on Tuesday.

The IAEA is a United Nations-affiliated, autonomous international agency charged with monitoring and regulating nuclear material worldwide. The agency currently has 134 member nations.

Agency spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told the Associated Press that the IAEA doesn’t know whether North Korea has disturbed previously sealed nuclear fuel rods. He also said the agency doesn’t know whether the fuel rods in question are “fresh” or “spent.”

“In the case of spent fuel rods, the intention could be to reprocess them to make plutonium,” Gwozdecky said. “And they [the North Koreans] have no legitimate civilian use for plutonium.” According to Gwozdecky, fresh fuel rods could be used in a reactor to generate electricity.

North Korea has said it intends to use the reactor plant to produce electricity since the United States has cut off oil shipments to the impoverished nation. The U.S. says the oil shipments were stopped after North Korea admitted re-starting its nuclear program.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have scoffed at North Korea’s claim that it will use the reactor for energy purposes.

“They don’t need a nuclear power plant. Their power grid couldn’t even absorb that,” Rumsfeld said during a press briefing on Monday.

Rumsfeld also said the United States would be able to deal with North Korea militarily, if necessary, even during a simultaneous engagement with Iraq.

“We are capable of fighting two major regional conflicts, as the national strategy and the force-sizing construct clearly indicate,” Rumsfeld said. “We’re capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other. And let there be no doubt about it.”

The IAEA release said that unless the safeguards are returned the agency will have no way of tracking North Korea’s nuclear material and will not be able to ensure it won’t be used for nuclear weapons. The agency said further that the removal of the seals and monitoring equipment means North Korea is not meeting the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

North Korea has said that it will continue to develop nuclear programs unless the United States agree to talks and signs a non-aggression treaty. North Korea has been acting and talking defensively since January, when President Bush grouped its communist regime with Iran and Iraq in what he said constituted an “axis of evil.”

“If the U.S. persistently tries to internationalize the pending issue between the DPRK [North Korea] and the U.S. in a bid to flee from its responsibility, it will push the situation to an uncontrollable catastrophe,” North Korea’s state-run newspaper warned.

U.S. officials have said there will be no talks until North Korea abides by agreements it made in 1994 to end its nuclear development programs. Instead of talking directly with North Korea, the United States has lined up the support from regional powers. China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, have joined the United States in calling for a ban on nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

However, South Korea, a U.S. ally and longtime adversary to its northern neighbor, may not continue to fully support a rigid approach in relations with the North.

On Thursday South Korea elected a new president with a more conciliatory tone toward North Korea than his opponent. President-elect Roh Moo-hyun campaigned on promises to continue current President Kim Dae-Jung’s “sunshine policy” of trying to engage North Korea. Roh also appealed to an apparent rise in public resentment against the United States, saying he wouldn’t kowtow to American leaders, and calling for a more “equal” relationship with the U.S.