The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Friday that South Korea's recently disclosed work with uranium and plutonium did not appear to be part of a weapons program, describing it as "simply two scientific experiments on a small scale."
"I don't think we have seen any intentions to develop nuclear weapons" by South Korea, the director general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, told reporters in Tokyo after completing an official trip to the South Korean capital, Seoul. "What we have seen are experiments that have to do with separation of plutonium and making uranium. These experiments by themselves are not illegal."
But ElBaradei suggested that the work, disclosed by the South Koreans last month, should have been reported to the IAEA earlier. South Korea's failure to report it promptly, some nuclear experts say, could constitute a violation of international law.
South Korea has acknowledged that government scientists conducted experiments to enrich uranium in 2000 and to extract plutonium in 1982; both are building blocks of atomic weapons. Diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, have said that the peak levels of the South Korean experiments produced material close to weapons grade. The head of South Korea's atomic energy agency has denied that.
South Korean officials have maintained that the work was purely scientific in nature and not linked to weapons research. In addition, they said that though the work was conducted by government scientists, it was performed without the knowledge or approval of higher-level officials.
ElBaradei, who spoke to reporters after giving a speech at United Nations University in Tokyo, said, "We still are doing our own investigations to make sure that we understand fully the circumstances surrounding these experiments, to make sure that these experiments have not continued and there is nothing more to it than simply experiments."
The IAEA investigation has so far consisted of two inspections, with at least one more planned before a team of experts submits a report on its findings to the 35-member IAEA board next month. If it is found to be in noncompliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or other international laws, South Korea could face a number of penalties, including referral to the U.N. Security Council.
During his visit to the region, ElBaradei has drawn a sharp distinction between South Korea and North Korea, which international authorities have said is amassing a nuclear arsenal. The Pyongyang government expelled U.N. weapons inspectors almost two years ago, and earlier this week in Seoul, ElBaradei criticized the Security Council for failing to take action against North Korea.
North Korea has cited the South Korean disclosures in an attempt to blunt international pressure to force it to abandon its nuclear programs. This week, North Korea continued that campaign through its official KCNA news service, insisting that IAEA officials were "downplaying the gravity" of South Korea's actions. ElBaradei, however, said the situations in the two Koreas were "not comparable."
Concerning Iraq, ElBaradei told reporters at the Japan National Press Club that he felt "vindicated" after the release this week of a report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector, Charles A. Duelfer. The report essentially confirmed that Saddam Hussein had destroyed his chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in the 1990s and had effectively given up efforts to pursue nuclear weapons, findings similar to those of U.N. weapons inspectors before the invasion of March 2003.
"Although it took a war to prove that, we were proven correct," ElBaradei said. "The lesson I take from that is that the international community should listen to us more carefully in the future before they take the decision to use coercive action."