Seoul steps up nuclear pressure
PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- South Korea has sent high-level delegates to China and Russia in a bid to increase pressure on Pyongyang to pull back from its current nuclear stance.
Government officials said Saturday South Korea would also arrange a meeting of tripartite talks with the United States and Japan early next month, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Russia and China are among the few countries in the world that maintain friendly relations with isolated North Korea.
North Korea said Friday it had decided to expel International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who have been monitoring its frozen nuclear facilities.
It also told the IAEA that it will resume reprocessing spent fuel rods at its plant, a facility capable of making weapons-grade plutonium.
The South's Defense Minister, Lee Jun, said the "possibility exists" that Pyongyang could be developing nuclear weapons.
Lee said the North's move to expel the inspectors "could be a brinkmanship tactic to induce Washington to come to dialogue table."
The IAEA says the inspectors are still needed and it has asked North Korea to reconsider its decision.
The news came the same day that the United Nations Command on the Korean Peninsula said the North Korean army has brought light machine guns into the Demilitarized Zone in violation of agreements signed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War. (Full Story)
In a sign the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is of growing concern to the Bush administration, the president's national security team, led by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, discussed the issue Friday at the White House.
An administration official told CNN that North Korea's move means "North Korea is isolating itself from the world."
Deputy State Department Spokesman Philip Reeker called getting rid of the inspectors "another violation of IAEA safeguard agreements."
'Current conduct is unacceptable'
He reiterated White House calls for the DPRK to "reverse its current course ... and take all steps necessary to come into compliance."
He added, "We seek a peaceful resolution to the situation North Korea has created" and will continue to consult with allies.
A senior State Department official hinted that James Kelley, assistant secretary of state for East Asian Affairs, will probably go soon to Seoul.
The official predicted the IAEA would go to the U.N. Security Council to call for action against North Korea over violation of the safeguard agreements. "It is their mandate, they are required to report violations," the official said.
Japan will lodge a formal protest against North Korea's decision to expel the inspectors via the North Korean Embassy in Beijing.
In London, Bill Rammel of the British Foreign Office said if North Korea wants to resume negotiations it must first come back into compliance with the agreement to freeze its nuclear program.
"What we are clearly saying is that the current conduct is unacceptable," said Rammel, "and nobody is going to be engaged in any form of negotiations until they get back into compliance."
"They need to come back into compliance," concurred a senior U.S. State Department official. "If North Korea is looking for greater engagement, this is not the way to do it."
Under the so-called Agreed Framework signed in 1994, North Korea said it would no longer seek to develop nuclear weapons and in exchange, the United States, Japan and South Korea agreed to help build two light water nuclear reactors to replace the plutonium-producing reactors Pyongyang was using.
In October, North Korea said it had resumed its weapons program claiming that the United States and its allies had failed to comply with the terms of the deal and rendered it null and void.
North Korea: Inspectors' mission is over
In a letter to IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei in Vienna, North Korea said it decided to send the inspectors out of the country because their mission ended when the DPRK unfroze its nuclear facilities.
"I hereby inform you of the decision of the Government of the DPRK to let the inspectors leave the DPRK since there is no justification for them to remain here and ask you to take the necessary steps immediately," said Ri Je Son, the director general of North Korea's atomic energy agency.
The letter added that "we will resume once-suspended construction of the atomic energy power plants and will embark on preparation to operate the radiochemical laboratory as a preparatory step to secure safe storage of large quantity of spent fuel rods that would come out once these power plants are in operation."
ElBaradei has told CNN that restarting the processing plant, which the North Koreans referred to as the radiochemical laboratory, is particularly troubling because North Korea is capable of building nuclear warheads from plutonium extracted from spent fuel rods.
"The reprocessing facility at Yongbyon is irrelevant to the DPRK ability to produce electricity," ElBaradei said Thursday. "The DPRK has no current legitimate peaceful use for plutonium, given the status of its nuclear fuel cycle. Moving towards restarting its nuclear facilities without appropriate safeguards, and towards producing plutonium raises serious non-proliferation concerns and is tantamount to nuclear brinkmanship."
ElBaradei told CNN he believes the North Koreans are trying to force the United States to the negotiating table.
"I think, unfortunately, this is a situation of nuclear brinkmanship," he said. "I think they are using their nuclear technical capability to achieve a political end which is highly unacceptable."
The United States believes that North Korea has already built at least three nuclear warheads. There is enough plutonium at the Yongbyon plant to build at least two more, U.S. officials estimate.
Last weekend, North Korea started removing the safety seals and blocked surveillance cameras placed by international monitoring agencies at facilities in Yongbyon.
The IAEA said Wednesday that North Korea had begun to move new fuel rods into the reactor, but added there was no indication that the North Koreans had moved enough new fuel rods into the facility to restart the reactor.