N. Korea Plans to Resume Processing of Nuclear Fuel

North Korea is barring U.N. nuclear inspectors from its main nuclear reactor and within a week plans to reactivate the plant that once provided the plutonium for its atomic test explosion, a reversal from past vows to halt nuclear ambitions. Video by AP
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 25, 2008

TOKYO, Sept. 25 -- North Korea plans to restart nuclear fuel processing next week and has banned international inspectors from its nuclear reprocessing plant in Yongbyon, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced Wednesday.

Acting on a North Korean request, inspectors from the Vienna-based organization removed all their surveillance equipment and seals from the reprocessing facility Wednesday and will have no further access to it, the IAEA said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the IAEA, told his board of governors that the North had informed inspectors that it intends "to introduce nuclear material to the reprocessing plant in one week's time." South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that the IAEA inspectors had been told to leave the country.

The action by North Korea comes after several weeks of increasingly defiant threats that it would soon restart its nuclear program. The United States and four other nations are trying to persuade the reclusive and poverty-stricken totalitarian state to abandon its nuclear program in return for food, fuel and a phased end to diplomatic isolation.

In New York, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that if the North resumes its nuclear program, that "would only deepen its isolation." But Rice said the talks are not dead. "By no means," she told reporters. "We've been through ups and downs in this process before." She said other governments are "carrying the same message to North Korea about their obligations."

Earlier this month, though, the North angrily announced that it is no longer interested in being removed from a U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism. Press reports in South Korea last week said the North was testing a new engine for an intercontinental missile with sufficient range to hit targets on the West Coast of the United States.

Coming at a time when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is believed by intelligence agencies to be ailing from a stroke suffered in mid-August, the IAEA announcement is the strongest signal so far that North Korea may be turning its back on negotiations. Still, brinkmanship and over-the-top rhetoric have long been part of the North's negotiating style.

Nearly two years ago, North Korea stunned the world by detonating a small nuclear device. Having grabbed the attention of the Bush administration with that blast, the North signed a disarmament-for-aid deal a few months later.

U.S. officials and South Korean observers have speculated that Kim's reported stroke provided an opening for military leaders in the North who do not want to give up the country's nuclear card. Kim has not been seen in public since mid-August, although North Korean officials insist that he is fine.

Less than three months ago, North Korea seemed to have settled on a far more accommodating path.

In a made-for-television moment, the North blew up a cooling tower at Yongbyon and turned over a long-delayed report that included details of plutonium production at the reactor.

It began disabling the Yongbyon plant last November, and experts say it will take at least a year before the reactor can be restarted to produce fresh nuclear fuel. The process of making fuel from spent fuel rods can begin much sooner.

In late June, President Bush began a phased process to drop North Korea from the U.S. list of terrorist states and to lift some trading sanctions. But the United States has insisted, with the support of China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, that the North must first agree to a strict system of verification. These arrangements would allow outside experts unfettered and unannounced access to nuclear sites and weapons anywhere in the country.

That demand seems to have infuriated the North Korean leadership. The government in Pyongyang has said repeatedly in recent weeks that it will not tolerate such intrusion into its affairs.

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