North Korea has ended its cooperation with international nuclear inspectors. The announcement made yesterday is the most significant yet in a recent rise in tensions.
The country told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) yesterday that "effective immediately, access to facilities at Yongbyon would no longer be permitted," adding that it had stopped work to disable the plutonium-production reactor and was even preparing to re-start it.
"The DPRK has informed the IAEA that our monitoring services would no longer be appropriate," concluded a spokesman.
In late September it was confirmed that IAEA seals and surveillance equipment had been removed from a reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, where plutonium could be extracted from used nuclear fuel.
An early move on this path was the manoeuvring of trucks for the benefit of spy satellites, apparently returning some of the nuclear equipment that had been removed from Yongbyon. But despite these moves, it would be impossible for North Korean engineers to restart the gas-graphite reactor: its cooling tower was demolished in a TV spectacular in June. It could not operate without this or an alternative cooling method, engineering for which should be easily visible via satellite.
|The scene before Yongbyon's cooling tower toppled
(Image: Gao Haorong/AP/PA Photos)
Nevertheless, North Korea is known to have extracted weapons-usable plutonium from Yongbyon used fuel and in late 2006 even proved it could make a nuclear explosive device based on this.
North Korean officials began posturing to increase tension because the USA has not yet taken it from a list of states considered sponsors of terrorism, as they thought would happen soon after the cooling tower demolition. American officials have said they are still willing to make the list change - once North Korea allows a program of checks to verify activities at Yongbyon and other sites were no longer possible. The USA has also been calling on North Korea to provide a complete list of nuclear activities and facilities.
Meanwhile, North Korea is now rumoured to be preparing a missile test in the hope of further ratcheting-up regional tensions. Negotiations on North Korea's disarmament are handled by the Six Parties: China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and the USA.
IAEA inspectors remain in Yongbyon for the time being, "pending further information," the agency said.