Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 5 News List

S Korea draws blank on fate of North's fuel rods

NO HARD EVIDENCE Seoul is saying that it has `no scientific evidence' that North Korea has reprocessed all of its spent nuclear fuel rods to make a nuclear bomb


South Korea has "no scientific evidence" North Korea has reprocessed all its spent nuclear fuel rods, President Roh Moo-hyun's foreign policy adviser said yesterday.

"We're not at the stage of being able to confirm anything," adviser Ban Ki-moon told a meeting of presidential secretaries, according to minutes released by Roh's office.

"At present, as we have said, there is no scientific evidence" that Pyongyang had completed reprocessing, he said.

On Sunday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a former Seoul intelligence official as saying UN-based North Korean diplomats had told US officials the reprocessing had been completed in June at the North's Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Reprocessing the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods would enable North Korea to add to an atomic arsenal that US and European intelligence agencies estimate already includes one or two such weapons.

The Yonhap report was based on an account of a US-North Korean meeting provided by Chang Sung-min, a top intelligence aide to former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, Roh's predecessor.

"North Korean delegates told US officials in an unofficial meeting in New York on July 8 that the reprocessing of spent fuel rods was completed on June 30," Chang was quoted as saying.

Washington and Seoul are trying to draw Pyongyang into talks with other concerned countries aimed at negotiating an end to its plans to acquire nuclear weapons. North Korea says the issue must first be dealt with in one-to-one talks with the US.

Pyongyang has issued a series of confusing assertions since April about its nuclear activities, in a dispute that erupted last October with US revelations that North Korean officials had acknowledged operating a covert uranium enrichment scheme.

On April 18, North Korea's Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang was "successfully reprocessing" the 8,000 spent fuel rods. But on April 21, the North's state media revised the ministry statement to say the North was "going forward to reprocessing work."

Days later, a North Korean official told US officials in talks hosted by China that Pyongyang had nuclear weapons and was poised to make more. He hinted that Pyongyang might test or transfer them.

Ban, who said Seoul and Washington were exchanging information on the reprocessing reports, cited recent remarks by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that highlighted the allies' uncertainty about the state of North Korea's reprocessing.

Rumsfeld told the US NBC television programme Meet the Press on Sunday that "we do not have good visibility into what they're doing with those rods, and the extent to which they are or are not reprocessing."

Referring to North Korea's assertions on their weapons possession and reprocessing, Rumsfeld said: "Some people believe what they're saying. Other people don't believe what they're saying."

South Korea's intelligence agency told parliament last week it estimated that the North had recently reprocessed a small number of of the 8,000 rods.

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