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North Korea Orders U.N. Nuclear Inspectors to Leave

The International Atomic Energy Agency received a letter from Ri Je Son, Director General of the General Department of Atomic Energy of North Korea, saying the communist country would no longer allow the international observers access to a nuclear facility.

“We’ve got a letter from [North Korea] saying take out the inspectors,” an IAEA spokesman told reporters.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, responded to the letter in a statement, saying he expects the North Korean government to allow the inspectors to stay and reinstall surveillance equipment recently disabled as part of the country’s decision to lift the “freeze” on their nuclear facilities.

“Together with the loss of cameras and seals, the departure of inspectors would practically bring to an end our ability to monitor [North Korea’s] nuclear programme or assess its nature,” ElBaradei said.

“This is one further step away from diffusing the crisis,” he added.

On Thursday, ElBaradei said recent moves by the North Koreans to reactivate their nuclear facilities, including transporting fresh fuel rods into a power plant, amounted to “nuclear brinkmanship.”

According to an IAEA spokeswoman, some 2,000 fresh fuel rods had been moved to a storage facility near the nuclear reactor as of Friday — an increase of some 1,000 rods that had been moved the previous day. The reactor needs a total of some 8,000 fuel rods to be started.

The North Korean government has said 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 a 1994 treaty. 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 Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“As our freeze on nuclear facilities has been lifted, the mission of IAEA inspectors, who have been in Yongbyon under the [1994] Agreed Framework between North Korea and the U.S., has naturally drawn to an end,” the official North Korean news agency said, quoting Pyongyang’s letter to the IAEA.

The news agency also reported that North Korea would restart a reprocessing laboratory at the facility in which plutonium, which can be used to make atomic bombs, can be extracted from spent fuel rods. The IAEA did not address that claim in their statement.

North Korea had said earlier that it intended to use the reactor plant to produce much needed electricity since the U.S. stopped oil shipments to the impoverished nation.

David Albright, an outside analyst for the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency in the 1990s, said it is unlikely that the North Koreans could be using the reactor for energy purposes.

“It has a turbine, but it produces a very small amount of electricity. And then if they only wanted electricity ? why would they take the seals off a reprocessing plant?” Albright told the NewsHour. “It’s just not credible.”

South Korea convened an emergency session of its National Security Council Friday to discuss the North’s announcement. South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun has said that the defiant posturing of the North may make it difficult for his administration to seek improved relations between the neighboring countries when he takes office in February.

“Whatever North Korea’s rationale is in taking such actions, they are not beneficial to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, nor are they helpful for its own safety and prosperity,” Roh said in a statement.

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