North Korea quits U.N. nuclear agency

June 14, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- North Korea announced yesterday its withdrawal from the international agency monitoring its nuclear development program, a move that the Clinton administration warned was "a very, very serious development."

The reclusive Communist nation also said that inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "will have nothing to do any further in our country." Two IAEA inspectors are being asked to leave the country, according to a statement Friday by Yun Ho Jin, North Korea's envoy to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency.

Without inspectors present, the spent fuel rods extracted from North Korea's largest nuclear reactor over the last month could be converted into weapons fuel without detection.

"If this is the direction which [North Korea] is going, it is very regrettable," said Robert L. Gallucci, assistant secretary of state for military-political affairs.

Mr. Gallucci, the Clinton administration's main policy-maker toward North Korea, said the withdrawal would leave the North's nuclear program -- which is suspected of developing nuclear weapons -- "completely unsafeguarded."

He added: "This would put into question North Korean assurances about the peaceful nature of their program."

U.S. intelligence officials believe that the North Koreans may already have two nuclear weapons and could quickly acquire enough plutonium to build four or five more.

Announcing their withdrawal from the IAEA, the North Koreans repeated their warning that any economic sanctions imposed on them "will be regarded immediately as a declaration of war."

The United States will begin pressing the U.N. Security Council this week to endorse an escalating series of political and economic sanctions against North Korea in an effort to curb its nuclear ambitions.

One uncertainty is how China will vote. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the North Korean ally could veto the resolution.

Administration officials said yesterday that they were seeking as broad agreement as possible on the scope of the resolution, which is meant to pressure the North Koreans to adhere to their international agreement not to make or acquire nuclear weapons.

President Clinton is writing to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, apparently to appeal for support, or at least an abstention, on the U.N. sanctions vote, according to Dee Dee Myers, the White House spokeswoman.

Officials said China shared U.S. concerns over the prospect of North Korea developing a nuclear arsenal and undermining Asian stability. But China is a traditional ally and economic partner of the Communist dictatorship in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Russia also has had strong ties to North Korea, but in a 25-minute phone conversation yesterday, Mr. Clinton and President Boris N. Yeltsin "agreed on a general approach to sanctions," Ms. Myers said.

Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters yesterday that it would take "some time" to put together such a "complex" and "very important" resolution.

North Korea's action yesterday was seen as a retaliation for the IAEA's suspension Friday of $250,000 in technical aid to Pyongyang. Significantly, China abstained in that vote.

The IAEA's aid suspension came after the North Koreans barred the agency's inspectors from examining spent fuel rods taken from its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

The inspectors had hoped to determine whether plutonium, a component of nuclear weapons, was diverted in 1989 when the power plant was shut down. The North Koreans closed the reactor again last month to refuel it. But it was impossible for IAEA inspectors to determine if plutonium has been diverted from the spent fuel rods. Plutonium is a byproduct of the reactor's uranium fuel.

The IAEA, based in Vienna, said North Korea had not communicated officially its intention to withdraw from the 120-member organization, which monitors compliance with the international treaty designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Word came instead in a Foreign Ministry statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea said it is withdrawing from the IAEA "immediately" because the aid suspension was "gravely encroaching upon the dignity and sovereignty of our republic by following the United States' policy of stifling" North Korea.

The IAEA has two inspectors at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility, monitoring the withdrawal and storage of the spent fuel rods from the nuclear reactor there. It is also operating surveillance cameras in the nuclear facility.

Without IAEA inspection, there is no way to verify whether any country is complying with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Reflecting increasing fear of invasion from the North, South Korea yesterday announced the mobilization of 6.6 million military reservists in one of its biggest ever civil defense exercises to be held tomorrow.

Defense drills are a monthly ritual in the capital Seoul, 35 miles from the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. But this week's exercise will be nationwide and involve more personnel and equipment. The South Koreans are also checking the safety of their underground shelters and their emergency water supplies.

In an effort to defuse the crisis, former President Jimmy Carter is to travel to Pyongyang tomorrow for four days of meetings. He is not officially an emissary of the Clinton administration.

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