North Korea bars UN from nuclear complex

North Korea barred United Nations monitoring throughout its Yongbyon nuclear complex on Thursday in a significant step towards scrapping a deal to dismantle its atomic bomb programme, officials and diplomats said.

”Today, [North Korea] informed agency inspectors in Yongbyon that it has stopped its disablement work agreed within the six-party talks,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a short statement.

”Agency inspectors were informed that as a result of this decision, access to the facilities would not be permitted as of today [Thursday],” it said.

A senior diplomat close to the IAEA said the three inspectors were still at their guesthouse inside Yongbyon.

The United States said any step to bar the nuclear monitors was ”regrettable” but that the six-party talks would continue.

Two weeks ago, the reclusive Stalinist state expelled the monitor team from Yongbyon’s plutonium-producing plant, kernel of its atom-bomb capability, and vowed to start reactivating the Soviet-era facility shortly.

At the time, Pyongyang let the IAEA continue verifying the shutdown status of other parts of Yongbyon. The IAEA’s tools included surveillance cameras and seals placed on equipment.

Exactly two years ago, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapon test, alarming the world and prompting crisis diplomacy and a groundbreaking disarmament pact with the US, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan in February 2007.

The pact appeared to unravel last month after Pyongyang, angry at not being removed from a US blacklist of sponsors of terrorism, vowed to rebuild the largely dismantled Yongbyon.

Economic benefits
Washington said it would take the North off the list, bringing economic and diplomatic benefits, once a system had been agreed to verify its statements on its nuclear programme.

”North Korea is trying to strengthen its position,” Paik Hak-soon, director at South Korea’s Center for North Korean Studies, said of Pyongyang’s decision to put all of Yongbyon facilities off-limits to the IAEA.

”This is a follow-up to the decision to restore the nuclear facility … It is something happening in the tug-of-war with the United States,” he said in Seoul.

Kyodo news agency, quoting Japanese government sources, said Washington had told Tokyo it would remove North Korea from the blacklist this month. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined comment when asked about the issue.

Asked about tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the North’s decision to kick out UN monitors from Yongbyon, she told reporters before a meeting with Latvia’s foreign minister: ”Let’s just wait and see over the next several days. We are reviewing the situation and I am talking to my colleagues.

In Washington, White House spokesperson Gordon Johndroe said the six-party talks would continue. ”Any steps to bar monitors are regrettable,” he said.

Diplomats had said the next critical step for North Korea towards reviving Yongbyon would be removing IAEA seals from thousands of fuel rods in storage to prepare for reintroducing them into the reprocessing plant.

”The monitors were there [at storage sites] but from here on they are out. So the IAEA won’t know what the North Koreans are doing any more,” said the senior Vienna diplomat.

South Korea on Tuesday played down unconfirmed reports that North Korea delivered an ultimatum when it held talks last week with a visiting US envoy trying to save the floundering deal to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill has given no details of three days of talks he had in Pyongyang last week. He said the focus of the discussions was on finding a way to verify what the North said about its nuclear programme.

Diplomats and analysts tracking the issue say it could take North Korea between three months and a year or more to reverse the disablement of its nuclear infrastructure.

North Korea expelled UN monitors in late 2002, quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty at the start of 2003, announced nuclear arms capability in 2005 and detonated a nuclear device in 2006. — Reuters

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