As the Bush administration tries to ratchet up pressure on Iran, emerging details of clandestine nuclear work in South Korea indicate that the U.S. ally was more successful than Tehran in producing the key ingredient for a bomb and used deception to conceal the illegal activity from U.N. inspectors for years.
In interviews late last week, diplomats with knowledge of both covert programs disclosed that South Korean scientists enriched uranium to levels four times higher than did their counterparts in Iran. Seoul conducted those experiments, in violation of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, two years before Iran did and kept them secret for nearly two years after Iran's came to light, said the diplomats, who would discuss the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency only on the condition of anonymity.
South Korean workers dismantle the facilities of a research reactor belonging to the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute in Seoul.
(Kang Chang-kwang -- Hankyoreh News Via AP)
The South Koreans appear to have experimented with smaller quantities of uranium than Iran did, and there is no indication that Seoul invested the kind of money and resources that Tehran has put into its program, the diplomats said.
IAEA inspectors have yet to uncover the full scope of the activities of either Iran or South Korea. Until two weeks ago, there were no public indications that South Korea had conducted any weapons-related work, and it was not understood how similar the program was to Iran's efforts.
The South Korean revelations have thrown the Bush administration's efforts on Iran and North Korea into turmoil. Over the weekend, U.S. officials said they were forced to scale back plans to refer the Iran issue to the U.N. Security Council by month's end. And a statement from North Korea on Seoul's nuclear work cast further doubt on U.S. hopes of resuming talks later this month aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
U.S. officials had hoped to push its Iran agenda at the IAEA's board meeting that will begin in Vienna tomorrow. But with little support inside the Security Council for muscling Iran, U.S. officials are backing a competing plan from the Europeans that would give Tehran until late November to suspend suspect nuclear work or face the possibility of council action then.
"We tried, but we had to give up on our 'noncompliance' resolution right now," said one U.S. official. "We're hoping that triggering language, calling on Iran to take a series of steps by a certain deadline or face an automatic referral, will do the trick."
Under the new resolution, the IAEA's board would reconvene at the end of November and judge Iran's compliance based on the full history of its program.
European diplomats said a final draft of the resolution is being worked out and emphasized that the new wording offers no guarantee that the matter would wind up before the Security Council.
U.S. officials have said it is too early to know whether the South Korean issue should be referred to the council, but they worked hard to avoid the appearance of being softer on friends than on foes.
"One thing I can assure is that we will not allow a double standard in terms of how we treat the violations," said John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, who negotiated with the Europeans on an Iran resolution in Geneva last week.
The IAEA, which has suspected South Korea of violating the nonproliferation treaty for six years, confronted the Seoul government last December. Several months later, diplomats said, South Korea began to acknowledge the work. Publicly, officials in Seoul said the experiments were one-time efforts by scientists working on their own.
But diplomats challenged those assertions and revealed over the weekend that the Seoul government officially and repeatedly blocked IAEA inspections months after the experiments in 2000 and told the IAEA false cover stories.
"In 2001, the IAEA asked to conduct a regular inspection and was denied. That happened at least twice before the South Koreans, under some protest, allowed the inspectors in two years later," a diplomat said.