N Korea offers nuclear inspection too late

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The Independent Online
JUST AS its scientists disposed of the last clues to its past nuclear activity, North Korea last night offered to allow international scrutiny of its nuclear facilities.

'If US-Korean talks are renewed, we will guarantee inspection - testing, measuring and the preservation of nuclear fuel - at our nuclear facilities,' the North Korean Foreign Minister, Kim Yong Nam, said on a visit to Ukraine. But the United Nation's nuclear arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said yesterday that North Korea was removing the last fuel rods from an experimental reactor without allowing tests that would determine whether weapons- grade plutonium had been extracted in the past. The United States last night rebuffed the inspection offer, saying North Korea had 'crossed the point of no return'.

The US held two rounds of talks last year with North Korea, aimed at persuading the isolated Communist regime to open up its facilities in exchange for badly-needed economic aid, but Pyongyang's intransigence has prevented a third round. North Korea reacted to pressure to permit IAEA inspection by giving notice that it would pull out of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, then suspending its withdrawal at the last moment. When inspectors were finally allowed in, they were prevented from carrying out most of their work.

Last month North Korea started to remove fuel rods from an experimental reactor at its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of the capital, before the arrival of an IAEA inspection team. The inspectors have been allowed to watch the process, but not to take samples at the crucial time. Observers said the opportunity for testing now being offered by Mr Kim is valueless, but may further complicate American attempts to impose sanctions against North Korea.

The South Korean Foreign Minister, Han Sung Joo, arrived in Peking last night to seek Chinese support for sanctions. But China, almost the north's only trading partner and ally, again went out of its way yesterday to stress the closeness of relations with North Korea.

President Jiang Zemin met the North Korean chief of staff on Tuesday and said strengthening China's 'traditional friendship' with Pyongyang was 'firm policy'.