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05-12-2005, 07:33 PM

North Korea Reports a Key Nuclear Move

By Barbara Demick, Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — North Korea announced Wednesday that it had removed fuel rods from its main nuclear reactor, a key step toward preparing to harvest plutonium for bombs.

Defying international calls for restraint, North Korea also said it intended to resume construction on two nuclear reactors that were mothballed under a now-defunct 1994 pact with the United States.

The North called the moves "necessary measures to bolster [our] nuclear arsenal for the defensive purpose of coping with the prevailing situation" in a statement attributed to an unnamed Foreign Ministry official and carried over the state-run news service.

The 8,000 fuel rods that North Korea says it removed from a 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon could yield enough plutonium for three nuclear bombs. Although it is unclear whether the North has the capability to resume construction on its two larger reactors, they could yield enough material for 50 bombs a year if completed and operating.

It was impossible to independently confirm that the secretive North Korean regime had actually removed the rods at Yongbyon, but the announcement seemed likely to add to an aura of crisis building around the nation's weapons program.

The removal of the fuel rods would confirm fears that have been mounting since last month when South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies observed that the reactor had been shut down in an apparent preparatory step. By publicly declaring a move that had been widely anticipated, North Korea seemed as much intent on taunting the United States as pushing forward its nuclear program.

"They are dragging it out and playing things for all they are worth," said a U.S. expert on North Korea who requested anonymity.

South Korea, which has reacted calmly to recent provocative moves by North Korea, expressed alarm over the latest development.

"We express deep concern about the move as it is aggravating the situation," the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday night.

In Washington, Bush administration officials would not address the technical steps announced by North Korea and instead repeated exhortations that it return to six-nation talks aimed at getting it to give up its nuclear program. The negotiations have been on hiatus for nearly a year, and Washington has repeatedly rejected the North's demands for direct talks with the United States.

"North Korea's provocative comments and provocative steps that they take only further isolate it from the rest of the international community," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

"We want to get North Korea back to the six-party talks because we believe that is the way forward to achieving our shared objective with all the other parties to the talks, and that is a nuclear-free peninsula."

The State Department said the newest assertions were simply additional "claims" by the North.

"They have made similar statements in the past," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We see rhetoric, claims, statements, activities, whatever by North Korea that go in the wrong direction. It's time for them to stop isolating themselves, for them to realize that they need to come back to the talks and be constructive."

A senior U.S. envoy, Christopher Hill, is expected to arrive in the South Korean capital Friday as he continues efforts to press North Korea to come back to the talks.

The U.S. has asked China, one of the North's closest allies, to use its clout to persuade leaders in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to rein in its nuclear activities, but Beijing has so far said it would not use stronger measures, such as withholding oil or aid.

U.N. arms inspectors were evicted from the Yongbyon nuclear compound at the end of 2002 and it is unlikely that satellite confirmation would be able to detect the movement of the fuel rods. But North Korea specialists say there is no reason to doubt the North Korean statement.

"Everything the North Koreans said they're doing, it turns out they have in fact done," said Daniel Pinkston, a specialist in North Korean weapons with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. "They've announced their moves at each step, unlike the Iranians, who deny everything."

He noted, however, that the North Koreans probably would have to wait at least six months to start reprocessing the plutonium to make it usable in bombs because the rods would be too radioactive to handle immediately. The rods are believed to have been placed in a cooling pond within the Yongbyon compound.

According to a report published two weeks ago by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, North Korea already has enough plutonium for five to eight nuclear weapons.

The announcement about removing the fuel rods comes amid mounting concern that the country is preparing for an underground nuclear test. A successful detonation would confirm what North Korea declared early this year: that it is a nuclear power.

In December 2002, Pyongyang ordered inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to leave the country after U.S. officials accused North Korea of violating the 1994 pact intended to freeze its nuclear program. It then restarted the reactor at Yongbyon, its main nuclear compound, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang. It also said then that it would resume construction of its two partially completed reactors, but had not repeated that threat recently.

The two additional reactors, a 50-megawatt reactor also in Yongbyon and a 200-megawatt reactor about 15 miles away in Taechon, were about one year from completion when construction was frozen in 1994. According to an analysis by the CIA, the two reactors when completed could produce up to 600 kilograms of plutonium each year.

It is unclear, however, whether impoverished North Korea has the capability to carry through on its threat to resume construction.

Sigfried Hecker, an American nuclear scientist who was driven past the Yongbyon reactor in a trip early last year, testified to Congress afterward that the building was "in a terrible state of repair" and that it was "not clear how much of the current structure can be salvaged."