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IAEA Investigating Nuclear Experiments in South Korea - 2004-09-02

The International Atomic Energy Agency has a team of inspectors in South Korea investigating an apparent breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The case will be reviewed at the upcoming IAEA board of governors meeting.

South Korea informed the International Atomic Energy Agency at the end of last month that it had produced weapons-grade uranium at a government site four years ago and failed to inform the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

A Western diplomat based in Vienna says uranium was enriched to what he called a significant level and the IAEA executive board, on which South Korea is represented, should inform the U.N Security Council.

Rebecca Johnson, editor of Disarmament Diplomacy says the news that South Korea has violated international obligations will be welcome in Pyongyang. "In that it redirects attention away from North Korea's clandestine nuclear weapons program and makes it very much more difficult for the other members of the six-party talks to condemn North Korea," Ms. Johnson says.

The United States, along with South Korea and four other countries, is trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions and to establish a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

IAEA spokesman, Mark Gwozdecky, says the agency immediately sent a specialist team to look into the matter.

"The South Korean government informed us that it had enriched nuclear material in the course of some experiments to do with laser isotope separation," Mr. Gwozdecky says. "These experiments have not been declared to the IAEA. The South Korean government told us that the experiments have been on a laboratory scale and involved the production of only milligram quantities of enriched uranium. But we have a team right now in South Korea investigating and they'll be returning early next week and we will be preparing preliminary findings which our Director General will report to our board of governors on September 13."

Seoul says the activities were carried out without the government's knowledge by scientists acting on their own initiative, although the facility itself was run by the government.

The Science and Technology Ministry says the amounts enriched were too small to produce bomb-grade uranium for nuclear warheads, and the equipment was subsequently scrapped.