Concern rises here over broken seals

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Concern rises here over broken seals

North Korea has removed a seal placed by the International Atomic Energy Agency at the pond where 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods are stored underwater, the UN agency and officials in Seoul said yesterday. The rods are stored at the North's nuclear reactor site in Yeongbyeon, north of Pyeongyang.

The North has also taped the lenses of surveillance cameras monitoring the storage facility, officials here said. The move, which the IAEA called a "further disruption" of its nuclear safeguard tools in the North, came a day after the North removed seals and cameras at the nuclear reactor itself. Officials here also said North Korea has probably removed the seal on the radioactive laboratory in Yeongbyeon. The lab is suspected to be Pyeongyang's plutonium reprocessing facility.

While maintaining that Pyeongyang has yet to "cross the line of no return," officials in Seoul reiterated calls made over the weekend for North Korea to pull back and restore the surveillance gear. A Foreign Ministry statement said the latest move by Pyeongyang was "regrettable" because it was came after repeated international warnings to halt its nuclear program. The move also heightens tension in the region, the statement said, and elevates the international community's concern about nuclear proliferation.

The IAEA's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said the spent fuel contains "a significant amount of plutonium." He added that North Korea's refusal to respond to agency demands to return to the status quo ante was "deplorable."

The fuel rods taken from the reactor cannot be reused in the nuclear plant and, as a U.S. State Department spokesman noted, have no plausible connection with electrical power.

"The North has crossed several lines," a senior official here said, "but the final big line probably hasn't been crossed yet." He said Seoul is trying to work with other nations, including Russia and China, to turn the North around. There has been no discussion of sanctions, he added.

Speculating on the North's motives, the senior official said the North is "clearly making a mistake," but added that it is not clear whether Pyeongyang has failed to grasp the international community's distress or if it understands that atmosphere but is plowing ahead nonetheless.

This official defended the decision by Japan, Korea, the European Union and the United States to suspend fuel oil shipments to the North, saying that Pyeongyang triggered the chain of events by initiating a clandestine program to produce weapons-grade uranium in the late 1990s. A U.S. envoy confronted officials in Pyeongyang in October with evidence of that program and said Pyeongyang admitted to it. The fuel shipments were a part of the 1994 agreement between the United States and North Korea which was to have frozen the North's nuclear program.

Other officials here pointed out that the removal of the seals does not automatically mean that the North will attempt to reprocess the spent fuel that was stored under safeguards at Yeongbyeon; nor is it certain without close inspection that the rods are capable of being reprocessed into nuclear weapons material. But other experts involved in the matter, including Mr. ElBaradei, said the material would be enough to manufacture about five nuclear weapons. The fuel was put into storage over a four-year period that ended in 2000.

by Kim Young-sae

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