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North Korean Yongbyon Reactor Could be Operational Within Weeks - 2003-01-11

North Korean diplomats in Vienna say a reactor at the country's nuclear plant at Yongbyon could be up and running within weeks.

A reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility could be operational within weeks, not months. The announcement comes from a North Korean diplomat in Vienna in charge of relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA had been monitoring the reactor, but three weeks ago, surveillance equipment was disabled, and the agency's inspectors were subsequently expelled from North Korea. This left the agency, as its director put it at the time, clueless on developments.

The IAEA says that North Korea has no peaceful need for the plutonium that the reactor could produce. U.S. officials in Vienna say there is a danger that North Korea could sell plutonium on the international market.

But a possible conciliatory tone has also come from North Korean diplomats in Vienna. They indicate that North Korea would allow some verification of its nuclear program by the United States, if Washington drops what they call its 'hostile policy' toward the communist state.

The IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna, confirms that it received a letter from the North Koreans on Friday outlining this suggestion.

A spokesman for the agency, Mark Gwozdecky, denied that the IAEA was being sidelined in the standoff between the United States and North Korea. "There are situations in the world, where IAEA safeguards are, if you will, substituted by another form of safeguard, in Latin America, and in the European Union, the European regulatory body takes on some of the work that we would otherwise do," he said.

The IAEA has accused North Korea of nuclear brinkmanship. On Saturday, North Korea hinted it might ignore international treaties and start its own ballistic missile program. On Friday, the country announced it was leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.