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North Korea nuclear fears deepen

Financial Times | May 11, 2005
By Anna Fifield

North Korea on Wednesday said it had removed thousands of spent fuel rods from its Yongbyon nuclear plant, a key step in a weapons programme causing increasing anxiety in Washington.

Amid fears that Kim Jong-il's regime might try to assert itself by testing a nuclear weapon, North Korea's central news agency quoted the North Korean foreign ministry as saying Pyongyang had “recently completed the process to withdraw 8,000 spent fuel rods from the 5MW experimental nuclear power plant”.

Although there is no way of knowing whether the North Korean claim is accurate, the statement underlines the rapid deterioration in the already-difficult relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

The report declared that North Korea was “taking measures to enhance our nuclear arsenal for self-defence purposes to cope with the political atmosphere”.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, refused to comment directly on Pyonyang's claim but said: “Provocative statements and actions by North Korea only further isolate it from the international community.”

The North last month shut down its reactor at Yongbyon, 100km north of Pyongyang, sparking fears that the plutonium fuel rods would be reprocessed to create nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration has become impatient with North Korea's refusal to resume discussions about its weapons programmes while the rogue state continues to make ever more provocative claims to try to force the US to meet its demands.

There is speculation that Washington has a June deadline for negotiations to restart before it takes tougher measures, such as referring Pyongyang to the United Nations Security Council for possible economic sanctions.

But some analysts think Mr Kim will try to pre-empt any US action with an inflammatory gesture of his own, including perhaps a nuclear test. US satellites have recently recorded digging and building in the Kilju area, considered a likely site for a test.

North Korea has claimed to have “weaponised” the previous batch of 8,000 rods, potentially yielding eight nuclear bombs. While Wednesday's statement did not say Pyongyang would turn the latest cache into weapons, removing the rods is the first step towards manufacturing more bombs.

Operations at the Yongbyon plant had been frozen under the agreed framework the regime signed with the Clinton administration in 1994 but were restarted when the Bush administration cancelled the agreement in December 2002.

Just as North Korea has been deliberately vague on the state of its weapons manufacturing process, leaving analysts and governments to assume the worst, yesterday's statement was made against an unclear background.

The North's main Rodong Shinmun newspaper this week said the US was “making a fuss” by spreading reports that the state was preparing for an underground nuclear test although it did not deny a test was possible.

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