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Seoul admits secret uranium trials

Revelation complicates bid to curb Pyongyang, Iran

From National Security Correspondent David Ensor

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An activist protests in Seoul, South Korea, demanding that North Korea scrap its nuclear program.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- South Korea has admitted that government scientists enriched uranium in 2000 to near-nuclear-weapons level, international inspectors have said.

The development could complicate efforts to persuade North Korea and Iran to give up nuclear weapons programs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, in a written statement on Thursday, said they were told by the South Korean government "only milligram quantities" were enriched using a laser process in a laboratory.

They said the work had been done "without the government's knowledge," though it was done by government scientists in a government lab.

A team of IAEA inspectors is in South Korea examining evidence of the experiment, and would report to the agency's board of governors.

South Korea recently signed the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under whose provisions, diplomats say, it would have been difficult to conceal such experiments for long.

"The South Korean disclosure will deflect attention from North Korea and Iran where it belongs," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"It will complicate the effort to get them to give up their programs.

Six nations, including South Korea, have joined together to pile pressure on North Korea after officials in Pyongyang admitted to a secretive nuclear program almost two years ago.

"It is no surprise nations like South Korea are beginning to hedge their bets in light of the North Korean nuclear weapons advances," Cirincione said.

South Korea should face penalties and should punish the scientists in question, if they really were acting on their own, as the government asserts, Cirincione and Jon Wolfstahl, also of Carnegie, told reporters.

The U.S. State Department said Thursday that while the South Korean activity should not have occurred, and should have been reported earlier, the United States is glad Seoul had reported it to the IAEA.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said South Korea, who is a close ally of America, notified the United States about its intent to declare the activity to the IAEA.

"We expect that the agency will fully investigate the matter and keep the board of governors fully informed. It is important that all such activity be investigated," Boucher said, adding he expected the IAEA to look into any countries that helped Korea acquire the materials related to uranium production.

"Their transparency and cooperation in resolving this matter is a strong example of how states should respond in complying with their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty," Boucher said.

Boucher said Libya was another example of a country that came forward to admit past nuclear activity and show it was no longer engaging in such activity.

By contrast, Boucher said, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors and announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"It remains important for North Korea to disclose their activity and to work with others on what we have all agreed on, which is the denuclearization of the peninsula," Boucher said.


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