The Bush administration has decided against moving to report South Korea to the U.N. Security Council today for conducting secret nuclear experiments four years ago, U.S. officials said.
The decision, made during a phone call between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his designated successor, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, curtailed a proposal by some in the administration who wanted to confront the Seoul government today when the International Atomic Energy Agency opens its meeting in Vienna. Those officials had argued that reporting South Korea to the Security Council would encourage allies to take the same path later with Iran, which the administration alleges is conducting a nuclear weapons program.
But Seoul had conducted a two-month diplomatic offensive, sending high-level officials to Washington and other capitals to plead its case. "It would be using South Korea as a scapegoat, and that is not acceptable," a South Korean government official said in an interview, on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy involved.
After talking with South Korean officials during a visit to Chile last week, Powell was convinced it would be best for the United States to accept Seoul's explanations, officials close to the secretary said.
"Obviously, this will impact our goals on Iran but there is an acknowledgment now by our allies that South Korea's work wasn't government-authorized and is on a whole different scale than Iran's," a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations said.
After receiving vows from Seoul that no additional experiments will occur, diplomats expect IAEA members to issue a statement today noting South Korea's past failings but welcoming its work with the agency's investigation.
South Korea acknowledged in September that government scientists enriched small amounts of bomb-grade uranium and conducted plutonium experiments, but they insisted the work had been unauthorized and was the result of intellectual curiosity, rather than nuclear weapons ambitions.
The revelations were immediately compared with nuclear work Iran conducted in secret over roughly the same period. The IAEA's investigation of both countries indicates Seoul was more successful at enriching uranium, but that it appeared to have experimented with smaller quantities than Iran and made no attempt to produce its own fissile material.
No evidence has been found in either country of a nuclear weapons program, though suspicions against Iran remain high. The IAEA board is expected to pass a resolution tomorrow warning Iran that it could face the Security Council, which can impose economic sanctions, if it breaks a commitment it made to European diplomats to suspend its nuclear programs.
Yesterday, a day before the IAEA board was set to welcome Iran's commitment to the Europeans, Iranian officials tried to obtain the right to continue operating about two dozen centrifuges, despite a commitment to halt all such work. European officials said the request violates their deal and would be denied.
The United States, wary of Iran's intentions, is pushing for more aggressive IAEA inspections in Iran. But it would take a decision by the Security Council to give the agency the kind of "anywhere, anytime" access it had in Iraq before the U.S. invasion.
So the most the IAEA's board could do is request Iran to voluntarily provide that kind of access. Iran is under no legal obligation to accept the board's request, but doing so would be viewed by the board as a measure of good faith.
Iran, rich in oil and gas, insists its work is geared toward the development of a nuclear energy source. But the scale of its programs and the years of secret work Iran conducted have fueled administration beliefs that it has a covert weapons program.
Powell said last week that new intelligence indicates Iran has a warhead design and is trying to refurbish ballistic missiles to deliver an atomic bomb.
But U.S. officials said that information is based on a single, unverified source, and a newly declassified CIA report on nuclear programs makes no mention of such attempts.
Faiola reported from Seoul. Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.