Unease Grows as N. Korea Asks to Remove IAEA Seals From Reactor

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

North Korea asked international nuclear inspectors yesterday to remove surveillance cameras and seals from the deactivated reactor at Yongbyon, amid rising concerns that the diplomatic deal to dismantle the country's nuclear weapons program might be unraveling.

The North Koreans requested the removal "to enable them to carry out tests at the reprocessing plant, which they say will not involve nuclear material," Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the 35-member IAEA board in Vienna. Although the reactor remains shut, he said, some equipment that had been removed "has been brought back" after North Korea announced Friday that it was making "preparations" to restart it.

Bush administration officials struggled yesterday to balance their unease over North Korea's actions with optimism that ongoing diplomatic efforts would succeed in keeping the 2007 deal alive.

"The six-party process has had its difficult moments in the past, and we are certainly having one now," chief U.S. negotiator Christopher R. Hill said. Because it would take time to restart the reactor, he said, "we have time -- time ahead to continue to work this issue. We don't expect any dramatic developments in a matter of days. . . . But clearly it's a difficult moment . . . and it's a time where we really are going to have to work very closely with our other partners."

Hill spoke in New York, where the five partners negotiating with North Korea -- the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- are discussing the situation on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly.

President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed in a telephone conversation Sunday "that they would work hard to convince the North to continue down the path" established by the agreement, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had separate meetings in New York with her Chinese and South Korean counterparts on the issue.

South Korea indicated over the weekend that it would suspend promised aid to the North if efforts to rebuild the reactor continued. The Nelson Report, which closely monitors U.S. policy in Asia, said yesterday that Seoul had stopped delivery of 4,000 tons of steel pipe promised to North Korea. "The next step now comes from China," the report said, "if there is to be any concerted pressure" from the five partners.

North Korea's moves are the latest in a series of recent challenges to nonproliferation successes the administration hopes to claim as part of Bush's foreign policy legacy. Plans to impose a new round of sanctions against Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program are stymied at the United Nations.

ElBaradei said yesterday that the IAEA "has not been able to make substantive progress" on answering questions about "possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program. These remain of serious concern," he said. Iran says its program is designed only to produce nuclear power and denies Western charges of a clandestine weapons program.

Two weeks ago, Rice mentioned the administration's diplomacy on Iran and North Korea as evidence that it would leave the nuclear nonproliferation issue "in far better shape than we found it."

North Korea's program, frozen under a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration, was restarted in 2002 after the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of violating the terms of the accord. Pyongyang then reactivated the Yongbyon reactor and produced enough plutonium for a half-dozen weapons. In 2006, it exploded a small nuclear device.

Last year, a deal was struck between North Korea and the five partners in which Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its weapons program in exchange for diplomatic concessions and energy assistance. In June, North Korea turned over a 60-page declaration that included details of its plutonium production and blew up the cooling tower at the shuttered Yongbyon facility.

The Bush administration, whose senior ranks have long been divided over how tough to be on North Korea, said it needed to verify the assertions in the declaration. When it let slide the August date for removing Pyongyang from a terrorist list -- which bans defense sales and restricts trade, foreign aid and financial transactions -- the North Koreans announced they were suspending the dismantlement of the reactor and said last week that they were preparing to restart it.

On Friday, North Korea's state-run news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that the government did not care whether it would be delisted and warned the United States not to treat it like Iraq.

Experts noted that North Korea has not yet done anything irreversible and that its step-by-step behavior appears to have left the door open. "It's all designed to send a message to the United States that if you don't live up to the deal, we will go back to the nuclear program, as opposed to 'the deal is dead,' " said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund.

But "the deal is clearly unraveling," he said. "The thing that worries me is that I don't see anything that's going to stop this."

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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