N. Korea again blocks inspections amid evidence it diverts nuclear fuel

March 16, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- North Korea has blocked a full inspection of the most sensitive part of its nuclear program, raising new suspicions that it is seeking to produce an atomic-weapons arsenal, U.S. officials and diplomats said yesterday.

International inspectors, who left North Korea on Monday, were barred from taking some of the samples they needed from the heart of the North's nuclear program: a reprocessing facility that separates plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.

The inspectors also found that some seals placed at nuclear facilities to prevent diversion of nuclear fuel were not intact.

The latest obstruction throws into disarray a new relationship between the United States and North Korea, carefully worked out over months of negotiations.

And it raises anew the possibility of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, according to one official.

In addition, U.S.-South Korean military exercises, suspended 12 days ago as an incentive to the North to cooperate, may now be reinstated.

High-level talks between the United States and North Korea, set for Monday, will probably be postponed.

A senior administration policy-maker said relations were "at a crossroads. I can really see this going either way."

The sudden escalation of the crisis comes only a few weeks after officials here thought they had seen an end to a yearlong stalemate.

The Communist regime had agreed to allow international inspectors into its seven declared nuclear sites, although not to two other sites that are suspected of storing nuclear waste.

Although the inspectors were not allowed to go everywhere they wanted, the decision marked the beginning of a process that nTC officials hoped would lead to a full assessment of North Korea's nuclear program and agreement by the North not to develop weapons.

The inspections were seen as crucial because North Korea for a year had blocked anything but a cursory look at the seven sites.

In the past year, it withdrew from full participation in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although it has not pulled out of the treaty totally.

As was made clear to the North Koreans beforehand, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog, intended to take samples from the reprocessing facility that is the most important of North Korea's declared nuclear sites.

These samples would then be taken to the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria, and analyzed to determine whether nuclear-weapon fuel had been diverted.

North Korea refused to allow the taking of the samples.

Officials and diplomats say the inspection results show that North Korea may have diverted nuclear fuel, perhaps even in the past year.

More benignly, its actions could just be another example of North Korea's stalling to extract concessions.

Jon Wolfsthal, of the independent Arms Control Agency, said inspectors would likely have examined reprocessing units in the larger facility.

It was those units that in 1992 revealed that North Korea had failed to disclose the full amount of nuclear fuel it had previously diverted.

Without taking samples, Mr. Wolfsthal said, "it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the IAEA to know if North Korea has separated plutonium over the past year."

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