South Korea plays down new fears over nuclear threat

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The Independent Online

The South Korean President, Roh Moo Hyun, tried to contain international alarm over North Korea's nuclear ambitions yesterday, praising the United States for its policy of putting pressure on Pyongyang while maintaining a "friendly attitude".

President Roh was speaking after apparently cordial talks with Tony Blair in Seoul. In what was seen as a message to Washington that positive diplomacy was needed as well as a tough stance against North Korea's ambitions, he added: "As a rule, we both see carrots and sticks as part of the diplomatic process."

Despite reports that North Korea may have built a second plant for producing weapons-grade plutonium, possibly hidden deep beneath a mountain range, President Roh declared: "When we compare the current situation with six months ago, I think some of the dangers have subsided."

The New York Times reported at the weekend that a second plant, in addition to the known Yongbyon reprocessing facility, may exist.

The newspaper claimed that the possible existence of a second plant was being seriously considered by security experts in the United States and some Asian countries. Neither Mr Blair nor British officials would comment on the report.

Sparking the speculation are readings from sensors placed on North Korea's borders that recently have detected higher levels of Krypton 85, a gas that is emitted when spent fuel rods are converted to plutonium. The readings, moreover, do not appear consistent with the gas originating at Yongbyon.

The finding threatens to present President Bush with a crisis more serious than last October's, when US officials said their North Korean counterparts were openly claiming that they were restarting their weapons effort. This constituted a violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington under which the country had agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons activities.

Scott McClellan, the White House deputy press secretary, would not confirm reports of a second facility. But he acknowledged that North Korea "stated publicly last year that it did have a covert nuclear weapons programme". He added that "they have taken a number of escalating steps in recent months, including expelling IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors and restarting their nuclear facilities."

President Bush has stated that he will "not tolerate" a nuclear North Korea, and has ruled out a deal akin to the 1994 accord that would allow the regime simply to refreeze its programme. At the same time, the American administration has been trying to play down the gravity of the situation.

Mr Blair, who sounded a slightly sharper note than President Roh at a joint news conference, repeated that the issue had to be addressed.

"We cannot have a situation in which North Korea not merely continues to develop a nuclear weapons programme but proliferates and exports that technology around the world," Mr Blair said.

But he stressed the need for multilateral talks, adding: "We want to resolve the issue of North Korea and its nuclear weapons programme and the export of nuclear technology by peaceful and constructive dialogue."

Mr Blair said that the talks needed to include South Korea and Japan as well as China and America.

He said that if North Korea verifiably abandoned its nuclear development, the international community would stand ready to offer "help in making the transition to a different type of country, a more open country, that they say they want."

Asked why he did not make the same threats of military action against North Korea that were made to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Mr Blair acknowledged that "there is not the same history" of UN resolutions calling for Iraq to disarm. But, he added, "I can assure you there is the same sense of urgency."

The issue is likely to be top of the agenda in talks Mr Blair, who arrived in Beijing late last night, will hold with the Chinese leadership today and tomorrow.