IAEA officials stay put as Korea nuclear crisis deepens

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TWO NUCLEAR inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continued their lonely stint yesterday at North Korea's Yongbyon complex, waiting to see whether they will be asked to leave following the country's decision to quit the United Nations agency.

The inspectors, whose names and nationalities are not disclosed under IAEA rules, have been caught up in the worsening crisis over North Korea's nuclear programme. On Monday Kim Il Sung's regime reacted to growing international pressure to allow full inspection by announcing that it would leave the IAEA and prevent any more of its experts entering the country. Japanese officials said President Bill Clinton had expressed deep concern in a telephone call to the Prime Minister, Tsutomu Hata, while President Boris Yeltsin of Russia said the situation was 'very serious'. The US State Department said any removal of IAEA cameras or inspectors 'would be a new and very dangerous development'.

The US continued work yesterday on a draft UN Security Council resolution to impose phased sanctions on North Korea. The isolated regime constantly warns it will treat sanctions as a declaration of war, and has specifically threatened South Korea and Japan with retaliation. Although the South Korean Foreign Minister, Han Sung Joo, yesterday discounted the possibility of an armed clash, the country has stepped up civil defence preparations. The long- running crisis is also said to be having an impact on investment and loans to South Korea, and the Seoul stock market fell over 2 percentage points yesterday, its sharpest drop in four months.

While the Security Council powers debate how to bring Pyongyang into line, with China continuing to oppose sanctions against its ally, Jimmy Carter, the former US president turned private mediator, arrives in North Korea today for a four-day visit. The White House has stressed that he is not carrying any message from Mr Clinton, but the ex-president has been briefed by US government agencies, and yesterday met President Kim Young Sam of South Korea.

The North's secretive behaviour, and its belligerent reaction to pressure, have heightened suspicions that it is racing to develop nuclear arms. IAEA inspectors have been hindered from carrying out their duties at Yongbyon for more than a year. They have been barred altogether from some parts of the site, prevented from checking seals on equipment or changing batteries in monitoring cameras, and allowed to enter certain buildings only at night with the lights switched off.

Last month scientists began removing fuel rods from a reactor when there were no inspectors in the country, and when the inspectors arrived they were prevented from taking samples that would have shown whether North Korea had extracted plutonium in the past for possible use in nuclear weapons. Western intelligence agencies believe the Stalinist nation may already have one or two crude devices. The fuel rods extracted from the reactor are being held in a storage tank under surveillance by an IAEA camera, but after reprocessing they could produce enough plutonium for four or five nuclear bombs.

David Kyd, an IAEA spokesman, said the agency had received no official notice from the North Koreans about ending membership. The inspectors at Yongbyon had been told of the withdrawal yesterday, but not how they would be affected. They arrived last week for what would normally be a three-week spell of duty.

Mr Kyd added, however: 'Quitting the IAEA does not absolve North Korea from its obligation to allow full inspection under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).' Pyongyang gave notice last year that it would pull out of the treaty, but suspended its withdrawal at the last minute. It has since claimed a 'unique status', giving it the right to accept or reject nuclear inspection. The next step in the deepening crisis, however, may be a new notice of North Korea's intention to quit the NPT, which would give the regime the legal right to refuse all scrutiny.