Seoul fuels nuclear watchdog's fears

Posted in Koreas | 14-Sep-04 | Author: Ian Traynor| Source: Guardian

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei listens to a journalists' question during an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna September 13, 2004.
Suspicion about South Korea's illicit nuclear activities increased yesterday when UN inspectors said they had further evidence of banned operations and diplomats accused the Seoul government of a cover-up.

Opening an International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting in Vienna, the director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said that in the past fortnight its inspectors had found that South Korea had produced 150kg of uranium metal at three locations.

Uranium metal is most commonly used in weapons. Under its international treaty obligations, Seoul is bound to inform the IAEA of such activities, but neither the activities nor the three plants were declared, even though the events went back to the 1980s.

South Korea has admitted in the past fortnight that four years ago it enriched uranium almost to bomb-grade, and that in the 1980s it separated plutonium, diplomats said.

Dr ElBaradei said it was a "matter of serious concern" that these activities were not reported.

He said the IAEA investigation was only a few weeks old and he wanted more detailed scrutiny in South Korea before he recommended whether to refer the issue to the security council, which he would do by November at the latest.

The revelations about South Korea's nuclear experiments are particularly alarming because of the North Korean nuclear crisis and the possibility of a regional nuclear arms race.

Cho Chang-beom, the South Korean delegate to the IAEA, dismissed the misdemeanours as an "accident" and repeated Seoul's insistence that the experiments were conducted by rogue scientists without the government's knowledge.

But a diplomat said: "They've been obfuscating, denying, and lying."

The IAEA inspectors have had suspicions about the South Korean nuclear programme for years.

In February South Korea signed a standard agreement with the IAEA permitting more intrusive and more systematic inspection of its nuclear facilities. But it was only two weeks ago that it admitted that it had produced a small amount of highly enriched uranium four years ago.

Dr ElBaradei said that some of the uranium metal used in the experiments in 2000 was produced in the 1980s,.

"What's new is that the uranium enrichment goes back to the 1980s, showing the depth and the history of the project," another diplomat said.

"This will certainly cause certain people to question whether this was done spontaneously by some scientists in 2000."

The diplomat added: "South Korea enriched [uranium] to ... a level four times higher than Iran, and before Iran."