Defiant, North Korea Alters Reactor

VIENNA -- Communist North Korea stepped up its defiance of the international community by removing radioactive fuel at a controversial nuclear reactor despite threats of United Nations economic sanctions if it did so. Pyongyang's ambassador, however, said Friday that the step was taken for safety reasons and posed no threat. "The replacement of fuel rods has started already and is under way," Chu Chang Jun told a news conference. "We should have replaced the fuel rods a long time ago with a view to technical safety." The International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday that North Korea had begun discharging spent fuel from the reactor at its huge nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. The UN nuclear agency said this was a serious violation of its safeguards agreement and sent a telex to Pyongyang saying it was reporting the Stalinist state to the UN Security Council. "An agency inspection team currently in (North Korea) has confirmed that core discharge has indeed started and has reported on the extent of that discharge," the IAEA said in a statement. President Bill Clinton said Thursday North Korea would be making a mistake to continue thwarting international nuclear inspections. He said he would wait for a report from the IAEA before commenting further on U.S. concerns that Pyongyang might be creating plutonium to make a nuclear bomb. Refueling of the five-megawatt reactor has become central to the North Korean nuclear issue as the IAEA believes the plant could hold vital clues to determining whether Pyongyang has built a nuclear bomb. Tests would show if the rods were the original ones fitted in the reactor when it started up in 1986 or were more recent additions. The West suspects Pyongyang may have removed some of the fuel when the reactor was mysteriously shut down in 1989. The material can be enriched to make plutonium, a key ingredient in making an atomic bomb. "The agency needs to verify that the fuel discharged is the first core of the reactor," as North Korea has declared to be the case, the IAEA said. Some Western governments and intelligence agencies believe North Korea already possesses a crude nuclear device and Washington has said the Yongbyon reactor holds enough material to make up to five nuclear bombs. U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry on Tuesday described the nuclear situation in North Korea as "a very substantial near-term crisis in the world today." The IAEA's director general, Hans Blix, held urgent talks with agency officials in a rare late-night session at the