S. Korea calls tests far below weapons grade

Nuclear institute's chief says scientists conducted experiment `3 or 4 times'


SEOUL, South Korea - The father of South Korea's nuclear research program told foreign reporters yesterday that scientists under his command had performed an enrichment experiment "three of four times," but that in each case the enrichment level had not gone over 10 percent, far below the bomb-grade level of 90 percent.

Trying to ease foreign skepticism about the experiments, which were conducted in 2000, Chang In Soon, president of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, said in telephone interviews with Japan's Kyodo News and the Associated Press that any link between the tiny amount enriched and a weapons program would be "absurd."

Chang told Kyodo that his institute did not report the enrichment to the government at the time because the experiment did not cover a "formal research topic." Instead, he said, it was conducted largely to satisfy the curiosity of scientists, who used equipment assembled for other tests.

The nuclear institute's chief said that after South Korea signed on in February to a tighter regime of reporting and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, he sent a report on the experiment to Seoul in June. South Korean officials alerted the IAEA two weeks ago, leading to an inspection of the research center that ended Friday, the AP reported.

The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute is a campuslike concentration of laboratories for about 800 scientists in Taejon, about 100 miles south of Seoul. All of its work is supposed to revolve around civilian nuclear uses, largely nuclear power, the source of about 40 percent of South Korea's electricity.

Bound by international agreements, including a 13-year-old bilateral treaty with North Korea, South Korea has agreed not to enrich uranium for nuclear power, a constraint that chafes many people in this energy-poor society. South Korean officials have said no penalties are planned for the scientists who experimented with enrichment.

But with South Korea's enrichment of 0.2 gram provoking international concern, the only diplomatic missions will be outreach to foreign reporters and diplomats to support the country's contentions that the experiments were innocent ones.

"We have our ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and he will clearly explain our position to a board meeting" scheduled for Sept. 13, Ban Ki Moon, South Korea's foreign minister, said after attending a meeting of the presidential National Security Council.

Or as Hankyoreh, a liberal newspaper, said yesterday of efforts by diplomats and bureaucrats from the Science and Technology Ministry: "They are sweating to put out the flames."

In Washington, Bush administration officials have played down South Korea's enrichment experiment, apparently fearing that North Korea will take advantage of it. On Friday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, "We're not asking for any South Korean actions."

Countries in the region fear that South Korea's minor deviation from nuclear orthodoxy could be used by North Korea to justify its nuclear weapons program and to boycott the next round of regional disarmament talks, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 22 in Beijing.

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