Region Anxious As North Koreans Move Fuel To Nuclear Reactor

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - South Korea responded warily Thursday to the news that its communist neighbor has moved fuel to a frozen nuclear reactor in preparation for resuming operation.

The North Koreans on Christmas Day began to move about 400 fuel rods to the reactor at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, U.N. officials reported.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung told his cabinet that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis needed to be stepped up in conjunction with the U.S. and Japan, the other East Asian country most directly affected by belligerence from North Korea.

Experts believe the five-megawatt reactor was used in past years to produce weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear bombs.

It was mothballed along with related facilities as a result of a 1994 deal with the U.S., the Agreed Framework.

When the North Koreans admitted last October to violating that treaty by embarking on a separate uranium-enrichment program, the deal began to unravel.

The U.S. and its allies agreed to suspend the shipment of heavy fuel oil to Pyongyang - another element of the agreement.

North Korea then said it had no choice but to restart its frozen program, to generate power.

It demanded that the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), remove its seals and surveillance cameras from the facilities, then in recent days removed them itself.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi responded to the North's latest moves by calling them "provocative" and warning Pyongyang not to underestimate the will of the international community.

In his latest statements on the unfolding developments, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei described the situation as "rapidly deteriorating."

"Moving toward restarting its nuclear facilities without appropriate safeguards, and toward producing plutonium raises serious non-proliferation concerns and is tantamount to nuclear brinkmanship," he said.

The agency said ElBaradei was consulting with the IAEA board of governors on ways to address the issue. The board is due to meet in the first week of January, and may then decide to put the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

The board of governors comprises 35 member states, including all five permanent Security Council members, and is currently chaired by a Kuwaiti representative.

North Korea's moves have been widely seen as an attempt to compel the international community to make new concessions.

Seoul's Unification Minister, Jeong Se-hyun, said Thursday the North's nuclear posturing seemed largely aimed at forcing the U.S. to talk.

For its part, the U.S. has maintained a position that it is willing to restart dialogue with the cash-strapped state, but only once the nuclear program has been ended, and that has been verified.

The office of South Korean president-elect Roh Moo-hyun announced that President Bush would be sending an envoy to Seoul early next month for discussions on how to defuse the crisis.

Roh's spokesman said the envoy would likely be the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, James Kelly.

Kelly was the administration official who confronted the North Koreans last October with evidence of the clandestine uranium-enrichment program. His hosts' admission that the suspicions were true triggered the ongoing crisis.

Roh, who succeeds Kim as president in February, favors an approach toward the North that focuses on engagement rather than punitive measures.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow