The IAEA director-general, Hans Blix, will convene a meeting of the Agency's governors, probably later this week, to report on the stand-off. North Korea will be invited to send a representative to the meeting, and if no compromise is reached, the issue is likely to be taken up by the Security Council.
After allowing IAEA inspections to begin last year, some fears of North Korea's nuclear projects were allayed. However, IAEA inspectors began suspecting that they were not being shown everything, and two weeks ago made a special request to visit two waste-disposal plants in Yongbyon, a nuclear facility 60 miles north of the capital, Pyongyang.
The North Koreans have steadfastly refused. They say the plants are military installations whose secrecy is important for national security. Over the weekend, the government-controlled Rodong Sinmun newspaper denied there were any hidden nuclear materials in the country, and threatened the US and its allies with 'counter-measures for self-defence' if it were further pressurised into opening up the facilities to inspectors.
The IAEA's suspicions are based on samples of plutonium it has already examined from the Yongbyon facility. The North Koreans have claimed the plutonium, a key ingredient in making nuclear bombs, was produced only in minute quantities for research. But the radioactive footprints of the plutonium samples have suggested that it was made in far larger quantities than so far admitted.
The waste-disposal plants that IAEA inspectors want to visit could show more clearly how much unreported plutonium has been made. 'What particularly bothers us is that there are discrepancies in our own samples of what the North Koreans have given us,' said David Kidd, spokesman for the IAEA in Vienna. 'Now, combined with their refusal to allow inspections, it does seem as if something is amiss.'
It was revealed in Moscow last week that Pyongyang attempted to lure 60 Russian nuclear weapons scientists to work in North Korea last October. The scientists, mostly engineers involved in the design of nuclear rockets, had been offered salaries of up to dollars 4,000 ( pounds 2,900) a month, far higher than what they could earn at home. They were reportedly stopped at the last minute by Russian officials as they were about to board a plane for North Korea.
According to a report from the Itar- Tass news agency, 10 of the scientists had visited North Korea earlier in the year on a feasibility survey, somehow eluding visa controls on Russians who have access to official secrets. Within 24 hours of the discovery of the scientists' attempted trip, two senior North Korean diplomats were expelled from Moscow.