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 Tuesday, 24 December, 2002, 15:48 GMT
N Korea 'steps up' nuclear preparations
1992 photo of the Yongbyon nuclear plant
The Yongbyon plant - in a photo from 1992
North Korea has started repairing a nuclear reactor at the controversial Yongbyon site, according to South Korean Government officials.

Satellite photo of Yongbyon plant in 2000 by Space Imaging
22 Dec: N Korea removes monitoring devices at Yongbyon reactor
12 Dec: N Korea threatens to reactivate Yongbyon N-plant
27 November: N Korea accuses US of fabricating claim about nuclear programme
14 Nov: Fuel shipments to N Korea halted
16 Oct: N Korea acknowledges secret nuclear programme, US announces

And the United Nations says Pyongyang has dismantled most of the key monitoring equipment - its "eyes and ears" - designed to ensure the plant is not used to make nuclear weapons.

Experts say nuclear bombs could be produced from materials at the site, which was mothballed in a deal to end a 1994 stand-off between Washington and Pyongyang.

The US and South Korea have been gathering support from regional powers to put pressure on Pyongyang to halt its nuclear programme.

But North Korea insists it needs the tiny experimental nuclear reactor for electricity. It said it would try to resolve differences with the US but warned of "merciless punishment" if Washington continued its "provocation".

On Sunday, the North Korean Government said it had started dismantling United Nations surveillance devices at Yongbyon.

Weapons capability

The International Atomic Energy Agency - the UN watchdog tasked with monitoring the North Korean programme - said most of its equipment had gone, including seals, cameras and sensors.

We cannot know whether they are using this material for peaceful purposes or for nuclear weapons

Mark Gwozdecky
"Essentially our eyes and ears have been removed from that very large complex," spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told the BBC. Two inspectors remain at Yongbyon but have only low-level contacts.

Mr Gwozdecky said the IAEA now considered the situation so dangerous that North Korea was top of its list of priorities, along with the search for nuclear programmes in Iraq.

North Korea has "a high level of nuclear capability", he said, and could extract plutonium which could then be used to make nuclear weapons.

An official of the International Atomic Energy Agency holds a surveillance camera
The cameras monitored compliance with the 1994 American-led deal
"Without our safeguard measures in place, we cannot know whether they are using this material for peaceful purposes or for nuclear weapons," he said.

A South Korean Government source told the state-run Yonhap news agency that after removing IAEA seals, North Korean technicians had started to repair the Yongbyon reactor.

There are also concerns that work may be resumed at other dormant plants.

North Korea insists it has to restart the Yongbyon reactor to produce electricity after the US stopped aid shipments of oil in October in response to allegations that the North was developing a separate nuclear programme.

But the US says the retrieval of fuel rods at Yongbyon has nothing to do with electricity production.

The size of the five-megawatt reactor is also far smaller than most commercial power plants, which are often around 3,000 megawatts, analysts say.

US intelligence agencies believe North Korea has a small number of nuclear bombs and the material to make a few more.

War of words

Pyongyang has issued statements saying it will discuss problems with the US.

But the US is refusing to talk while under threat of "blackmail".

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned it would be possible to fight North Korea even if forces were involved in a conflict in Iraq.

North Korea hit back on Tuesday, with Army Minister Kim Il-chol increasing the level of the rhetoric against the Americans in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

"If they, ignorant of their rival, dare provoke a nuclear war, the army and people... led by Kim Jong-il, the invincible commander, will rise up to mete out determined and merciless punishment to the US imperialist aggressors with the might of single-hearted unity more powerful than an A-bomb."

South Korea's President-elect Roh Moo-hyun met ambassadors from Russia, China and Japan to gather support from regional powers.

Map showing North Korea's nuclear sites
Yongbyon: Five-megawatt experimental nuclear power reactor and a partially completed plutonium extraction facility. Activities at site frozen under 1994 Agreed Framework
Taechon: 200-MWt nuclear power reactor - construction halted under Agreed Framework
Pyongyang: Laboratory-scale "hot cells" that may have been used to extract small quantities of plutonium
Kumho: Two 1,000-MWt light water reactors being built under Agreed Framework

  The BBC's Andrew Webb
"Pyongyang says it needs the plant for generating electricity"
  Dr Kim Sang Woo, South Korean Ambassador
"We must have some kind of dialogue"
  IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky
"It's at the very top of our priorities along with Iraq"

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

22 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
15 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
12 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
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