- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 29, 2002

SEOUL The U.N. nuclear watchdog decided yesterday to pull its inspectors out of North Korea by News Year's Eve, a step demanded by the North that will leave the world without an eye into the secretive nation's nuclear program.
The head of the monitoring agency denounced the North's "defiance" and accused it of escalating the crisis over its plans to revive a mothballed nuclear reactor, which the United States fears will be used to produce nuclear weapons.
Trying to stave off the escalating tensions, South Korea said yesterday that it would appeal to China and Russia, North Korea's longtime allies, to pressure the North to back down.
Meanwhile, in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, 10,000 people rallied against U.S. policy, the North's official news agency said.
North Korea's demand for the inspectors' expulsion stepped up the challenge to the United States, which has taken a hard line toward North Korea, refusing to negotiate unless the North abandons its nuclear ambitions.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the North Koreans were "still pursuing their policy of defiance. They continue to escalate a crisis situation."
But he held out hope that diplomatic efforts would push North Korea's leadership to reverse course.
The IAEA's board of governors will meet at the agency's Vienna, Austria, headquarters Jan. 6, when it will consider whether to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, a grave diplomatic maneuver that could lead to sanctions or other punitive actions against North Korea.
"The emerging consensus is that the board would like to give diplomacy, and North Korea, another chance to comply with its international obligations," Mr. ElBaradei told the Associated Press by telephone from Sri Lanka, where he is vacationing.
The agency has three inspectors monitoring North Korea's main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, which has been frozen since 1994 under an agreement with the United States that fell apart this year.
On Friday, North Korea said the inspectors were no longer welcome. Mr. ElBaradei responded by sending a letter of protest to the North Korean government. North Korea did not reply, but yesterday North Korean officials told the monitors directly that "they should leave the country immediately," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
The inspectors were preparing to leave by Tuesday, she said.
After announcing Dec. 12 that it would revive the Yongbyon complex, North Korea removed IAEA monitoring seals and cameras from the site. The inspectors are the body's last means of monitoring the situation there.
The IAEA has been monitoring the complex since the North closed it in 1994 under an agreement that was intended to ensure that the isolated state does not divert nuclear materials to make weapons.
North Korea disclosed in October that it had a secret nuclear-weapons program. In response, the United States and its allies halted vital oil shipments promised under the 1994 deal. Pyongyang says it is reactivating the Yongbyon reactor to generate electricity.
It has begun moving fresh fuel rods to the reactor and has announced that it will reactivate a reprocessing laboratory where plutonium can be extracted from spent fuel rods. Plutonium can be used to make nuclear bombs.
There are 8,000 spent fuel rods in storage at the lab, and U.S. officials say those rods contain enough plutonium to make several bombs.
Russia and China urged Washington to seek dialogue rather than confrontation with North Korea. The Bush administration has said military action is not being contemplated.
A senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Seoul would send special envoys to Russia and China "at the earliest possible date" to seek assistance defusing the crisis.
South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong called his Chinese counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan, yesterday. Mr. Tang said Beijing "hopes the United States and North Korea will resolve the issue through dialogue," said South Korean Assistant Foreign Minister Lee Tae-shik.

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