- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2008

VIENNA, Austria | North Korea barred U.N. nuclear inspectors from its main plutonium reprocessing plant Wednesday and within a week plans to reactivate the facility that once provided the fissile material for its atomic test explosion, a senior U.N. nuclear inspector said.

The North ordered the removal of the U.N. seals and surveillance equipment from the Yongbyon plant, a sign it is carrying out threats to restart a nuclear program that allowed it to conduct a test explosion two years ago.

But the North’s moves could be motivated by strategy as well. It could use the year it would take to restart the North’s sole reprocessing plant to wrest further concessions from the U.S. and other nations seeking to strip it of its atomic program.

Coming amid reports that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke, the nuclear reversal has fueled worries about a breakdown of international attempts to coax the North out of its confrontational isolation with most of the rest of the world.

North Korea officials have “informed the IAEA inspectors that they plan to introduce nuclear material to the reprocessing plant in one week’s time,” an International Atomic Energy Agency statement said.

The statement said Deputy IAEA Director General Olli Heinonen told the IAEA board that - acting on a North Korean request - his inspectors removed all agency seals and surveillance equipment from the reprocessing plant and its immediate area, in “work that was completed today.”

The statement also said the North Koreans barred the IAEA inspectors from further access to the plant.

North Korea in recent days had already signaled it would break out of a six-nation disarmament-for-aid deal, announcing that it was making “thorough preparations” to restart Yongbyon.

In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said North Korea’s actions “are very disappointing” and would only isolate the country at a time when nations in the six-party talks were working to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

“We strongly urge the North to reconsider these steps,” he said.

Addressing reporters, Gregory L. Schulte, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, said of the North’s actions: “What they’ve done is trouble.”

And in Seoul, Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young expressed great concern.

But their comments were measured, reflecting fears that harsh condemnation would backfire by accelerating the North’s move to restore its nuclear capacities.

The IAEA has been monitoring the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, which were shut down and then sealed as part of a North Korean pledge to disable its nuclear program. That move was meant to be a step toward eventually dismantling Yongbyon in return for diplomatic concessions and energy aid equivalent to 1 million tons of oil under a February 2007 deal with South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

The accord hit a snag in mid-August when the U.S. refused to remove North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism until the North accepts a plan to verify a declaration of its nuclear programs that it submitted earlier.

A U.N. official, who demanded anonymity for divulging confidential information, said Wednesday that other nuclear sites in North Korea remained under IAEA purview. She also said agency seals remained on the spent fuel rods that were removed from Yongbyon under the terms of the deal.

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