N Korea set to double nuclear output

REVELATIONS have surfaced suggesting that North Korea is poised to double its nuclear weapons-making capacity, just as Washington signals its reluctance to tackle the country over its nuclear programme.

On Friday, the United States and South Korea agreed to put off a decision on resuming joint military exercises, to avoid provoking the Communist regime in the North.

But inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed yesterday that during their visit to North Korea last month they found evidence that work is under way at its crucial Yongbyon nuclear generation facility to double the capacity to extract plutonium there.

The Yongbyon plant is the focus of international concern about North Korea. It includes one 'reprocessing line', to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Plutonium is the essential ingredient in making nuclear weapons.

The director of the IAEA, Hans Blix, reportedly told the UN Security Council behind closed doors last week that his inspectors saw what appeared to be a second such line under construction. The inspectors were barred by officials from studying the new line closely, but they concluded that it might be six months from completion.

In addition, the North Koreans are building a second 50- megawatt reactor at Yongbyon. Intelligence experts fear that once spent fuel becomes available for reprocessing from that reactor, the North would be in a position to build as many as 12 bombs a year. According to the CIA, the country may already have one or two such bombs.

Meanwhile in Seoul yesterday, students demonstrated against US plans to deploy Patriot anti-missile interceptors in South Korea as a precaution. The protesters chanted 'Yankee go home' and burned effigies of the US Defense Secretary, William Perry.

Mr Perry last week became the first senior US official to warn clearly that war may become necessary on the Korean peninsula to stop the North pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

On China's urging, the Security Council issued a statement late on Thursday simply asking the North to allow the IAEA to complete its inspections at Yongbyon. It asked Mr Blix to report back on progress in six weeks. The statement notably made no mention of what might happen then if the stalemate continued.

The US and its allies, including Britain, had earlier favoured a more strongly worded resolution in New York that would have included a clear reference to eventual economic sanctions against Pyongyang if it continued to withhold co-operation. However, they agreed to accept the statement after it became clear such a resolution would be vetoed by Beijing.

The case of indulging Pyongyang for a further six weeks seems to have been considerably weakened by the latest revelations. It suggests that, as the West continues to give North Korea the benefit of the doubt, it is hurrying to bolster its nuclear position. Some analysts believe a confrontation is inevitable and should be faced up to more quickly.

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