Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Did N Korea reprocess nuclear rods?

SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE Contrary to Pyongyang's claims that it has started the process to produce weapons, Seoul now says the North might only have been testing a facility


North Korea, contrary to what has been claimed by Pyongyang, has apparently not begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods to produce weapons, a foreign ministry official said here yesterday.

The North, instead, is believed to have conducted a test-run of the reprocessing facilities in the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, some 155km north of Pyongyang, between late April and early May.

"At that time, some smoke was detected at the reprocessing facilities but this phenomenon soon stopped," the official was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.

"It seems that the North was not operating the facilities in earnest but testing them only," he said on condition of anonymity.

Should the reprocessing of the spent fuel rods begin, gases would be released into the atmosphere and those gases would be detected immediately, he said.

The official made the statement after the Washington Times said the CIA had revised an earlier intelligence estimate and now believed North Korea has begun reprocessing the spent fuel rods into plutonium.

Citing unnamed US officials, the newspaper said reprocessing the 8,000 stored nuclear fuel rods would be a key indicator that Pyongyang has abandoned past commitments to freeze its nuclear-arms program.

In an interview with Kyunghyang daily in Seoul this week, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-Kwan said there was no clear sign indicating that North Korea had embarked on the reprocessing.

US and South Korean officials say North Korea may have one or two nuclear weapons and the reprocessing of the 8,000 spent fuel rods would enable it to yield enough plutonium for several more bombs within several months.

Tensions flared last October when US officials said North Korea had admitted to having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement on freezing its atomic facilities in return for economic aid and other favors.

Meanwhile, a group of ruling and opposition lawmakers said yesterday that US troops should not move away from the border with North Korea until the nuclear standoff with the communist country is resolved.

Last month, the US and South Korea agreed to move US troops from the inter-Korean border and base them south of Seoul. They gave no timetable for the move.

The US Army's 2nd Infantry Division is headquartered north of Seoul, just 60km south of the border and within range of North Korean artillery.

"We oppose moving the 2nd Infantry Division south of Seoul until the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula is removed and peace is solidified," 28 lawmakers said in a resolution before the National Assembly.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high as North Korea defies pressure to give up its suspected development of nuclear weapons.

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