Evidence that North Korea has concealed plutonium from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors is at the heart of world concern about the secretive state's nuclear programme. The Vienna-based agency announced in 1992 that analysis of samples from a reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex showed North Korea had more plutonium than it had officially declared. Since then Kim Il Sung's regime has refused full inspection of its facilities, and recently raised the stakes by removing the core of a reactor at Yongbyon. Not only could this provide enough plutonium for several nuclear bombs, but the IAEA has been blocked from conducting tests on the fuel rods to determine how much weapons-grade material has been extracted in the past.
Hans Blix, director-general of the IAEA, yesterday dismissed reports that tests could still be done if North Korea changed its attitude. 'Humpty Dumpty has fallen down,' he said in an interview with the Independent. The agency had no way of knowing where the rods had been in the reactor - vital to the testing method it had devised - and the North Koreans had not kept 'sufficiently orderly' records.
Even if they had, he added, 'we are supposed to inspect, not to have trust, and therefore records are not conclusive evidence. From what we have learnt so far, 'there is no way to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Maybe we can learn something, but never to the extent that might have been possible with the method that we had.'
In North Korea the IAEA had detected possible undeclared plutonium but had no means of finding it without the co-operation of the authorities. The only way to remove any uncertainty, Dr Blix suggested, would be for Pyongyang to make a new declaration of the plutonium in its possession, and produce it to the agency's inspectors.
North Korea has seven officially declared nuclear sites, but has never allowed the IAEA to inspect two suspected waste dumps which could furnish information about its past activities.
Concern has been heightened by the regime's construction of two much larger reactors, the first of which could be on stream next year. The US is expected to seek the abandonment of these reactors, both of which would produce large amounts of plutonium, and to offer to help North Korea replace them with light-water technology which is less easily diverted to military use.
The South Korean news agency, Yonhap, reported yesterday that the US had mooted a deal under which Pyongyang could be given Russian light-water technology. Washington wants to head off any offer by South Korea's President, Kim Young Sam, to hand over his own country's American technology when he meets his northern counterpart later this month.