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More Concerns Raised Over N. Korea Nuclear Program - 2002-12-23

North Korea is raising new concerns about its nuclear program after it broke open seals guarding spent nuclear fuel. Experts say that material can be used to make nuclear weapons. Japan, the United States and South Korea are urging Pyongyang to stop efforts to revive its nuclear facilities.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, has confirmed that the seals safeguarding about 8,000 spent fuel rods have been broken, giving the North Koreans access to weapons grade plutonium.

That news follows Sunday's announcement by Pyongyang central television that North Korea would retake control of its Yongbyon reactor. The announcement says North Korea would remove the seals and disable monitoring equipment so that the nuclear facility can be used to produce needed electricity.

A U.S. State Department spokesman Sunday rejected Pyongyang's claim that it will use the plant to produce power, saying the fuel rods can not be used to generate electricity. Pyongyang says it has been forced to re-activate frozen nuclear facilities because the United States and its allies have cut off fuel aid.

Fuel oil shipments were halted after Pyongyang admitted to a U.S. diplomat in October that it has a program to make fuel for nuclear weapons. That violates a 1994 agreement with the United States. Under that deal, North Korea pledged to stop its nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil deliveries and help from an international consortium to build two nuclear power reactors that can not generate weapons fuel.

Officials from the United States, Japan and South Korea have been swift to condemn North Korea's actions. They urge Pyongyang to restore the security devices at the nuclear facilities. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell over the past two days has spoken with his counterparts in Tokyo, Seoul, Moscow and Beijing regarding the issue.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi says it is extremely regrettable that North Korea has decided to violate international agreements and re-active the plutonium powered reactor.

U.S. intelligence officials suspect Pyongyang already had made two or three nuclear bombs with plutonium before it froze its nuclear facilities in 1994.