The International Atomic Energy Agency reports North Korea moved around 1,000 fresh fuel rods to a 5-megawatt reactor, the latest step in the Communist government’s revival of a nuclear program that was frozen in a 1994 deal with the United States and other countries. North Korea has already removed monitoring seals and cameras at the Yongbyong complex, 55 miles north of Pyongyang.
IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told Reuters that two inspectors remain in North Korea to keep an eye on the situation.
The North maintains the facility is needed to generate electricity for its impoverished and starving population.
“Our measure has got nothing to do with plans to develop nuclear weapons. Our republic constantly maintains an anti-nuclear, peace-loving position,” state-run Radio Pyongyang said in a commentary.
However, the head of the Vienna-based IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, says the reprocessing facility is “irrelevant” to the country’s ability to generate electricity. He said the recent moves by Pyongyang were aimed at forcing increased aid from the United States.
The North Korean government says the responsibility to prevent an escalating conflict lies with the United States, which recently halted oil shipments in response to the North’s admission that it secretly continued a nuclear program despite the 1994 agreement. In that agreement, known as the Agreed Framework, a U.S.-led consortium promised to supply fuel oil and two proliferation-resistant reactors in exchange for North Korean compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The deal helped diffuse a similar standoff in which President Clinton reportedly considered bombing Yongbyong.
North Korea has said it will continue developing nuclear capabilities unless the United States signs a nonaggression pact and resumes aid shipments, a demand rejected by the Bush administration.
The situation has particularly alarmed North Korea’s neighbors to the north, south and east. President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea is reportedly planning an emergency security meeting with his cabinet on Thursday. Meanwhile, U.S. officials expect China, North Korea’s chief ally, to try to use its influence to prevent Pyongyang from creating more weapons-grade plutonium, Reuters reports.
United Nations officials said the atomic agency’s governing board would meet on Jan. 6 to discuss North Korea. The agency could give the North Korean government a chance to begin cooperating through high-level talks with agency officials, or it might decide to bring the matter before the Security Council, according to the New York Times.
On Monday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Pyongyang it was a “mistake” to think a possible U.S. military action in Iraq would distract American officials. Rumsfeld 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.”