- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

SEOUL — The U.N. nuclear watchdog is investigating a secret uranium-enrichment experiment that South Korean scientists conducted four years ago, officials from the United Nations and South Korea said yesterday.

The single experiment in early 2000 was revealed in a report South Korea presented last month to the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Science and Technology Ministry said.

South Korea reported that its “laboratory scale” experiment “involved the production of only milligram quantities of enriched uranium,” the IAEA said in a statement posted on its Web site.

Highly enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear warheads. But South Korea said yesterday that it has no intention of building nuclear bombs and remains committed to international efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its weapons development.

There was no reaction from North Korea, which says it is building a “nuclear deterrent” to counter what it calls plans by the United States and its ally South Korea to unleash a nuclear war on the divided Korean Peninsula.

“The government will take measures to prevent similar things from happening in the future,” the South Korean ministry said, adding that a small group of scientists conducted the experiment on their own initiative.

An IAEA investigating team arrived Sunday in South Korea to conduct a weeklong probe into the program, the ministry said.

The team will report early next week to IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who will present his findings when the agency’s board of governors convenes in mid-September.

South Korea said the uranium enrichment took place during experiments using laser technology to separate isotopes. Those experiments were part of the country’s research for domestic production of fuel for its nuclear power plants.

The experiment, conducted in a facility dedicated to research into nuclear fuel, involved separating just 0.01 ounces of uranium, the statement said. The experiment was immediately terminated after it was conducted and the equipment scrapped, the ministry said.

South Korea said the government only recently found out about the unauthorized experiment, when it prepared a report under the terms of a new, tougher safeguard agreement it signed with the IAEA in February that required it to record activities in the fuel research center.

“The fact that we have decided to report this faithfully and transparently to the IAEA reflects our commitment to nuclear nonproliferation,” the ministry said. “We are sincerely honoring our obligations for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear nonproliferation.”

South Korea said it remains committed to keeping the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

The experiment revelation comes as South Korea and five other countries are trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions. That crisis arose after the North reportedly admitted in 2002 to having a secret nuclear program in violation of international agreements.

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