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Warning over North Korea reactor

A satellite photo shows North Korea's nuclear facility at Yongbyon.
A satellite photo shows North Korea's nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

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A nuclear watchdog agency raises concerns about North Korea's latest move. CNN's David Ensor reports (December 23)
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CNN's Christiane Amanpour talks to Mohamed ElBaradei about Iran, Iraq and North Korea. (Part 1)
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(Part 2)
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• CNN Access: ElBaradei 
• On-the-scene: U.S. will deal with N. Korea 
• Analysis: Confront or engage? 
• Special Report: The two Koreas 
North Korea promised to give up its nuclear weapons program and allow inspections to verify that it did not have the material such weapons would require. The country has yet to allow the inspections.

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- North Korea will be just months away from producing plutonium if it is allowed to remove monitoring equipment from a deactivated nuclear reactor, the head of a nuclear watchdog group warns.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said North Korea's removal of the equipment, which was put in place by international inspectors to keep a watch on the country's nuclear program, was "disturbing" and "dangerous."

By taking "all the equipment from the spent fuel and the reprocessing plant [it] would enable them, if they restart the program, to make plutonium in a few months, and that's a pretty disturbing trend," ElBaradei said in an interview Monday on CNN's "American Morning."

But the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the move was necessary for the reactor's "normal operation to produce electricity."

Staff began removing the nuclear inspectors' monitoring equipment on Monday, IAEA officials said.

The IAEA director-general, speaking from Sri Lanka, said the agency's inspectors were still on site but that their monitoring abilities were "rather limited" without cameras and seals.

If the IAEA cannot provide adequate monitoring, ElBaradei said, it would then be "up to the (U.N.) Security Council, up to the members of the agency to take whatever measures to bring back North Korea into compliance with their non-proliferation obligation."

Strategic threat 'not that great'

A senior White House official told CNN on Monday the strategic threat posed by the possible reactivation of a nuclear reactor by North Korea is not that great.

The United States already knows that North Korea has enough plutonium for two to three nuclear warheads and has readied it for use in weapons, the official said. The previously deactivated nuclear reactor would provide enough plutonium for only another couple of warheads.

The North Koreans might be exercising a three-fold strategy, the White House official said.

Part of that strategy might be to drive a wedge between U.S. relations with South Korea, which North Korea could be viewing as less pro-America with the recent election of Roh Moo-hyun. But relations between the United States and South Korea are still strong, the official insisted.

North Korea's announcement might have been done in hopes the United States will "buy North Korea off" with more nuclear reactors, said the White House source, and it might stem from a belief that the Bush administration is distracted by Iraq, the official said.

The official conceded the White House is distracted by Iraq but maintains a "one at a time" mentality for dealing with Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- the nations President Bush has labeled an "axis of evil."

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday he was told "the reactor adds negligible electricity to the power grid in North Korea, and most of the electricity it produces is consumed by the reactor itself to run things."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell consulted Sunday with allies in Asia about North Korea's apparent moves toward reactivating the nuclear reactor, the State Department said.

State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said the United States would seek a peaceful resolution, but added, "Let me underscore that the U.S. will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments, and we will not bargain or offer inducement for North Korea to live up to the treaties and commitments it has signed."

South Korea also called on the North to return to the status quo.

North Korea said December 12 that it would re-start the reactor. Under a previous agreement, Washington had promised to send fuel oil to Pyongyang and to organize the construction of light-water reactors to replace reactors that produced weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product. North Korea, in return, had promised to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

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