Nuclear inspectors were banned from North Korea’s main reactor today as the country prepared to restart the weapons-grade plutonium plant.
The government ordered the removal of the UN seals and surveillance equipment from the Yongbyon reactor, a sign it is going through with threats to restart a nuclear programme that allowed it to conduct a test explosion two years ago.
But its moves could be also be strategic. It could use the year it would take to restart the reprocessing plant to wring further concessions from the US and other nations seeking to end its atomic programme.
Coming amid reports that that leader Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, the nuclear reversal has fuelled worries about a breakdown of international attempts to coax the North out of its confrontational isolation with most of the rest of the world.
North Korean officials have “informed the IAEA inspectors that they plan to introduce nuclear material to the reprocessing plant in one week’s time,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The statement said he told the IAEA board that his inspectors removed all agency seals and surveillance equipment from the reprocessing plant and its immediate area, in “work that was completed today”.
North Korea had already signalled it would break out of a six-nation disarmament-for-aid deal, announcing that it was making “thorough preparations” to start up Yongbyon.
The agency has been monitoring the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, which were shut down and then sealed as part of a North Korean pledge to disable its nuclear programme.
That move was meant to be a step toward eventually dismantling Yongbyon in return for diplomatic concessions and energy aid equivalent to a million tons of oil under a February 2007 deal with South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan.
The accord hit a snag in mid-August when the US refused to remove North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism until the North accepted a plan to verify a declaration of its nuclear programmes that it submitted earlier.
The Yongbyon plant was under IAEA seals in December 2002 when the North decided to order nuclear inspectors out of the country and to restart its activities, after the unravelling of a deal committing the US to help the country build a peaceful nuclear programme.
North Korea subsequently quit the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in January 2003 and announced it had nuclear weapons a little more than two years later.
The country had agreed in February 2007 to begin dismantling its nuclear facilities in exchange for aid and other concessions.
Scientists began disabling its reactor in November, and in June blew up the Yongbyon cooling tower in a dramatic show of commitment to the pact. Eight of the 11 steps needed to disable the reactor were completed by July, North Korean officials said.
But later that month, Washington made an additional request: detailed verification of the process, including soil samples and interviews with scientists. The US pinned one of its concessions – removing North Korea from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism – on verification.