South Korea downplays UN nuclear report
In the face of international media reports that UN nuclear inspectors will say South Korea breached non-proliferation accords, officials in Seoul repeated yesterday that the amounts of fissile material Korean scientists made in 1982 and 2000 were too small to be significant.
The media reports said the International Atomic Energy Agency will soon announce South Korea’s efforts to enrich uranium and separate plutonium, and Seoul’s failure to report the activities in a timely manner, are a matter of “serious concern.”
The UN nuclear watchdog’s report will indicate that South Korea produced weapons-grade nuclear material in unauthorized tests at a state-run research institute, the media reports said.
Addressing the reports, a senior Foreign Ministry official at a briefing yesterday said, “The IAEA report does not use the expression of ‘weapons-grade,’ at all. That expression is for highly-refined nuclear material of a significant quantity, but South Korea’s tests yield only miniscule amounts that were not highly refined.”
The official sought to play down the significance of the reported UN conclusions. “The report also does not use the term, noncompliance,” he said. IAEA board members will meet Nov. 25, and the agency is expected to issue a recommendation whether to refer South Korea’s nuclear tests to the UN Security Council for possible action, which could include international sanctions.
According to the international media, the IAEA report says South Korean scientists produced a total of 0.7 grams of plutonium comprising 98-percent of fissile PU-239 in its 1982 test.
In 2000, another group of scientists produced 0.2 grams of uranium, enriched to 77 percent, the report said. Non-proliferation experts said weapons-grade plutonium is typically about 93 percent plutonium-239, while weapons-grade uranium needs to be 90 percent. To build a nuclear bomb, at least 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium or 15 to 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium is required.
“Only a tiny amount of the uranium was enriched up to 77 percent,” the Foreign Ministry official said. “On average, the enrichment level was 10.2 percent, and the report makes that clear.”
The official said the IAEA report on South Korea’s plutonium production was also based on a theoretical calculation, while refusing to confirm whether the decades-old lab test yielded weapons-grade plutonium. Earlier, the state-run atomic research institute, which conducted the test in 1982, said it had produced no more than 86 milligrams of plutonium, just a tenth of what the report cited.
The nuclear agency said it has found no sign that South Korea’s experiments had gone beyond small-scale laboratory activities, the report said. Seoul re-emphasized yesterday that it has never had the intention of pursuing nuclear arms development.
South Korea signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1975 and an additional protocol in 1991. After Seoul revealed the past nuclear experiments in September, the IAEA sent inspectors three times to South Korea. The inspection reports hinted at the possibility of more inspections, saying “the agency is continuing the process of verifying the correctness and completeness of [Seoul’s] declarations.”
by Ser Myo-ja, Brian Lee