Sat, Nov 27, 2004 - Page 5 News List

South Korea likely to get off lightly for its nuclear program

AFP,Vienna and AP , Seoul

The UN atomic agency was expected yesterday to let South Korea off the hook for making small amounts of weapons-grade plutonium, a violation of nuclear safeguards, allowing Seoul to escape a referral to the UN Security Council.

An IAEA spokesman said Canadian ambassador Ingrid Hall, chair of the agency's board of governors was working on a statement on South Korea which would almost certainly avoid mentioning the Security Council "to reflect the consensus of what she heard" at an IAEA meeting in Vienna Thursday.

Speakers held off from calling for the US ally to be taken to the Security Council for possible sanctions, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Yong Jin told reporters.

"No country has spoken in favor of referring [Seoul] to the Security Council," Choi said, despite South Korean experiments that produced small amounts of weapons-grade plutonium and almost weapons-grade uranium.

South Korea in August admitted to the IAEA that its scientists had conducted secret experiments in separating plutonium in the 1980s, to produce 0.7g of weapon-grade 98 percent pure PU-239 isotope.

Seoul also reported laser enrichment of uranium "in 2000 by scientists at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute [KAERI] in Daejeon" that produced 200mg of uranium enriched to an average level of 10.2 percent and up to the highly enriched level 77 percent, which is close to weapons-grade, according to an IAEA report on Nov. 11.

But Seoul said the tests were conducted without government authorization and had stopped.

The revelations have embarrassed both the US and South Korea which are trying to pressure North Korea to end its nuclear weapons drive.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei had Thursday expressed "serious concern" at past failures by South Korea to report activities linked to potential weapons programs, but stopped short of saying that the country should be reported to the UN Security Council for them.

"The quantities of nuclear material involved have not been significant," ElBaradei said.

Meanwhile, representatives of six nations trying to end a dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons development will hold informal talks in Beijing in the middle of next month, a news report said yesterday.

Chief delegates of the six nations would meet for two or three days between Dec. 15 and 23, said South Korea's KBS-TV, quoting a senior government official.

KBS quoted the official as indicating that North Korea agreed to join the discussions aimed at setting the date and other terms for reopening official talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US.

Foreign Ministry officials could not confirm the report.

The six nations have held three rounds of talks in Beijing to find a way of curbing North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, but no breakthrough has been reported.

A fourth round scheduled for September never took place because North Korea refused to attend.

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