South Korea admits nuclear experiments

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The Independent Online

Officials in South Korea have told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that government scientists conducted nuclear experiments to enrich uranium four years ago.

Officials in South Korea have told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that government scientists conducted nuclear experiments to enrich uranium four years ago.

The enrichment was "very close" to the threshold for bomb-grade uranium, a Vienna-based diplomat close to the IAEA said. "It was well beyond the level that would be needed for a civilian programme. The government says its programme is peaceful and the IAEA is not making any judgments on that issue."

Seoul said it learnt of the tests, which took place at a nuclear site in South Korea in January and February 2000, while drawing up its first report to the IAEA for submission this month. The experiments are said to have been part of research in producing nuclear fuel in the country.

"Whether it is a violation of IAEA safeguards, that's a question for the IAEA inspectors to answer," the Seoul official said. However, several IAEA diplomats claim the scientists were government employees working at a government-run facility.

Embarrassingly, Seoul is a member of six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions. US officials said in October 2002 that the North admitted to a secret nuclear programme based on uranium enrichment technology. Pyongyang has since denied the claim. It has yet to comment on the South Korean disclosure.

South Korea has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the IAEA's Additional Protocol. Several IAEA diplomats said Seoul's failure to declare the enriched uranium could be a serious breach of its obligations under the NPT.

"This will have to be reported to the Security Council, but the board would want that to be with the consent of the South Korean government," an IAEA official said.

The body will investigate in order to satisfy itself that South Korea has no nuclear weapons programme. Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director general, will present the findings to the board on 13 September.

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