Watchdogs keep lonely vigil over N Korea's deadly pond

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The Independent Online
TWO MEN, trained scientists whose identities are kept secret, spend their days babysitting 8,000 highly radioactive fuel rods in a remote part of North Korea. Watched by North Korean agents, they have little personal freedom and are rotated out through Peking every three weeks to keep them sane. Bored and lonely, they are the outside world's only check on North Korea's nuclear programme.

Despite the efforts of intelligence agencies and data from sophisticated spy satellites, United States negotiators rely on the reports of the two men, who are inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as they try to strike a deal with Pyongyang on its suspected nuclear programme.

The scientists are housed in a spartan guest house built specifically for IAEA inspectors beside the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. Their only contact with the outside world is by North Korean public telephone. They are not allowed to travel inside the country or talk to locals. They cannot watch foreign television, since foreign broadcasts are jammed. They exist on a diet of North Korean cuisine, are restricted to a limited number of buildings in the nuclear complex and are accompanied always by minders as they work. Otherwise, 'they read a lot', said David Kyd, an IAEA spokesman in Vienna. 'Three weeks is about as much as they can take on a stretch,' he said.

Their names and nationalities are known only to a handful of IAEA officials. North Korea has approved a total of 14 inspectors, mostly Russians, Finns, a German and some Africans and Asians from countries which have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. It keeps a detailed file on each of them. Two inspectors are always in Yongbyon, pond- watching.

The constant surveillance is exceptional. Elsewhere, the 200 IAEA inspectors working in 60 countries fly in and out, making brief checks on nuclear power plants and relying on video films and other instruments to make sure nothing illicit has been carried out since their previous visit.

'But in North Korea we are obliged to keep two guys on station for real-time reporting to the UN Security Council,' Mr Kyd said. 'Two trained scientists acting as sentries, basically.'

The Security Council has been watching North Korea particularly closely since June, when Pyongyang suddenly removed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods from the reactor in Yongbyon and placed them in a pond of water for cooling. If they are reprocessed, the rods could yield plutonium for several nuclear bombs. The IAEA has instructed the two men in Yongbyon to maintain a vigil on the pond, and to sound the alarm immediately if North Korea tries to transfer the rods to another part of the complex.

(Photograph omitted)