What is the IAEA and what is it doing in North Korea?

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What is the IAEA and what is it doing in North Korea?

Many of you will have heard a lot recently about the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Some of you may even be tired of reading even more about the North and its nuclear program.

But those of you with the slightest interest in North Korean news may have noticed the term “IAEA” in headlines recently.

Do any of you know exactly what IAEA stands for, or what it has to do with North Korea?

IAEA is the acronym for the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international organization formed to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for military purposes.

Founded in 1957, the Vienna-based organization reports to both the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Security Council. The organization has had quite a history with North Korea since the communist country’s plan to develop nuclear weapons first made international headlines in the early 1990s.

The IAEA was established in the wake of World War II, as the world was being forced to consider the danger of nuclear weapons, which had just destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the war, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the formation of an international body to control and develop the use of atomic energy. Since then, more than 140 countries have joined, while two countries that were once members later walked out - Cambodia and North Korea.

In its early days, the IAEA had no binding power to stop powerful countries like France from developing nuclear weapons or testing them. So the United States and the Soviet Union proposed the idea of a so-called nonproliferation treaty in 1968, which banned any country - except for the five countries that already possessed nuclear weapons - from developing or owning their own nuclear weapons.

If this sounds unfair to you, you’re not alone. So in return, the five countries - all permanent members of the UN Security Council - the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, France and China, pledged to increasingly scale back their existing nuclear weapons.

Among other things, the treaty requires signatory countries to allow IAEA experts to inspect their nuclear facilities to see if they are developing or producing any banned nuclear weapons or materials other than those for peaceful use.

The countries are also required to submit a full account of their nuclear stockpiles and installations to the IAEA before the inspections.

If the inspectors find that the country has falsely declared its nuclear activities, the IAEA secretary general must report it to the board, who will in turn report the violation to the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and all IAEA member nations.

The UN Security Council can then vote on whether to impose military or economic restrictions or sanctions on the country in question.

This is what happened with North Korea. The country has a long, bitter history with the IAEA, on top of the latest hubbub when it ordered IAEA officials in its main Yongbyon nuclear complex to leave the plant, and take with them the uninstalled surveillance equipment and cameras they had brought with them.

North Korea first joined the IAEA in 1985, a precondition stipulated by the Soviet Union for helping it build nuclear power plants in Sinpo to ease its energy shortage.

But U.S. intelligence in the late 1980s discovered the North was also developing a covert nuclear plant to produce weapons in a place called Yongbyon. Washington soon notified the Soviet Union, China and South Korea, thus beginning the North Korean nuclear crisis and the subsequent years-long ongoing dispute between the communist state and the international nuclear watchdog.

Facing enormous pressure from the international community, the North allowed IAEA inspectors into the Yongbyon complex in May 1992. The officials soon raised suspicions that the country had extracted a far larger amount of plutonium than it had claimed to have produced, and had actually developed two nuclear installations it hadn’t reported to the IAEA.

Against such accusations, the North took dramatic action - it completely withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty it signed with the IAEA in March 1993, while criticizing the IAEA for meddling with its internal affairs.

This created great tension between Pyongyang and Washington, but after months of haggling, the two countries managed to strike a deal in 1994 called the Agreed Framework, in which the North promised to freeze its plutonium-producing nuclear plants in return for U.S. fuel aid and help in building atomic energy plants.

All seemed to be going well for quite a while after the agreement was hammered out in Geneva. The North began denuclearization, and the U.S. and South Korea started building the promised energy plants and the issue remained out of the international media spotlight.

Relations began to turn frosty, however, when newly elected U.S. President George W. Bush included North Korea in his infamous “axis of evil” list in 2001. Matters took a further downward spiral when Washington raised suspicions in October 2002 that the North was secretly developing highly enriched uranium, a critical component of nuclear weapons, prompting Pyongyang to show unusual rage - even by its histrionic standards - in denying the allegations.

It subsequently reversed its denuclearization at rapid-fire pace.

By December, the country had declared it would reactivate its disabled nuclear installations, remove seals placed by the IAEA and kick out the inspectors.

Although six years have passed since then, the current situation is increasingly beginning to resemble the 2002 crisis. The North has, again, removed the seals put in place by IAEA officials, ordered the agency watchdogs to leave and declared it will soon reintroduce its once-disabled fuel rods.

It was IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei who revealed to the world the latest developments in the reclusive country in the agency’s board meeting in Vienna last week.

So now, readers, you know just how deep-rooted the history between the IAEA and North Korea is. The organization has never been short of disputes with countries that harbor ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, like Iran. But North Korea certainly tops them all when it comes to having a bitter history with the IAEA.

And as long as the North harbors such nuclear ambitions, this decades-long feud with the IAEA is unlikely to end anytime soon.

By Jung Ha-won Staff Reporter [hawon@joongang.co.kr]
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