The South Korean government says its scientists were not trying to build a nuclear bomb when they enriched a small amount of uranium four years ago. But news of the experiment is prompting nervous reaction from Japan. And there are concerns it could complicate efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
Government officials in Seoul say they do not believe that revelations about a discontinued uranium enrichment test should affect talks on ending North Korea's nuclear program.
The government said on Friday the test was for purely scientific research purposes, and was not linked to weapons programs. It also says after one test, the program was discontinued four years ago.
Those comments come a day after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that South Korean scientists had enriched a minute amount of uranium.
But opposition political leaders say the unsanctioned experiment might have violated a pact with Pyongyang to keep the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
In Japan, the only nation to be targeted by nuclear weapons, government officials call the South Korean uranium experiment regrettable. A government spokesman said Friday that while South Korea probably was not trying to build nuclear weapons, it does appear that its research controls were lax.
An official of the Japanese Congress Against Atomic & Nuclear Weapons says the group wants a firmer response from the government.
Toshihiro Inoue says Japan should insist the South Korean government make public all information about the experiment so experts can determine exactly what took place.
IAEA inspectors on Friday wrapped up inspections at a South Korean nuclear research institute. The agency will issue a report about the matter in a few weeks. Seoul reported the uranium test to the agency a month ago.
North Korea has yet to comment on the test in South Korea. Pyongyang is under pressure from South Korea, the United States and other countries to abandon its efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Diplomats in Asia on Friday expressed concern that North Korea could use the revelation as an excuse to continue its nuclear activities.
The United States says similar experiments in Iran indicate that nation is trying to develop nuclear weapons. A State Department spokesman says South Korea's test was smaller than the Iranian program. Some analysts, however, point out that the amount of uranium enriched by South Korea was larger than the amount found so far in Iran.
South Korea had a clandestine nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, but it was stopped in the face of strong pressure from the United States.