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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pyongyang Chided for Nuclear Move

SEOUL, South Korea -- The UN nuclear watchdog said Monday it deplores North Korea's decision to remove UN seals and surveillance cameras from nuclear facilities that U.S. officials say could yield weapons within months. Washington and its allies urged Pyongyang to rescind its decision.

North Korea on Sunday began removing UN seals and "disrupting" cameras at a laboratory used to extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said.

"There isn't any legitimate purpose for the facility other than separating plutonium from spent fuel," a step in the process of making nuclear weapons, said Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for the IAEA.

North Korea indicated Monday that the "nuclear issue" could be settled if the United States agrees to a long-standing demand for a nonaggression treaty.

"The U.S. should stop posing a nuclear threat to the DPRK and accept the DPRK's proposal for the conclusion of a nonaggression treaty between the two countries," the North's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in an editorial. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The United States, which is South Korea's chief ally, says it wants a diplomatic solution, but opposes talks unless North Korea first abandons nuclear weapons development.

Also Monday, North Korea's nuclear ambitions dominated a previously arranged meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, who won election last week.

No details were available, but Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office in February, has advocated dialogue to resolve the nuclear problem.

The IAEA, which has been monitoring the facilities, said Pyongyang this weekend unsealed a spent fuel storage chamber that holds 8,000 irradiated fuel rods.

"As the spent fuel contains a significant amount of plutonium, [North Korea's] action is of great nonproliferation concern," Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general, said in a press release Sunday.

ElBaradei said it was "deplorable" that Pyongyang had not responded to his requests for "an urgently needed discussion on safeguards issues."

"The 8,000-odd spent fuel rods are of particular concern because they could be reprocessed to recover plutonium for nuclear weapons," U.S. State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said.

Pyongyang's move Sunday raised fears of a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula similar to one involving the same facilities in 1994. At that time, officials in Seoul and Washington feared a heightened possibility of war with North Korea.

Conflict was averted when North Korea agreed to freeze the facilities in a deal with the United States. But it said Dec. 12 that it planned to reactivate them to produce electricity because Washington had failed to follow through on a pledge to provide energy.

North Korea said the IAEA failed to respond to its request to remove the equipment, compelling it to do so itself.

The IAEA said the seals and surveillance equipment had been removed from the spent fuel pond, which stores the fuel rods, at the 5-megawatt, Soviet-designed reactor in Yongbyon, 80 kilometers north of Pyongyang.

Fintor, of the U.S. State Department, said spent fuel rods had "no relevance" for generating electricity. Their unsealing "belies North Korea's announced justification to produce electricity," he said.

Security experts believe North Korea made one or two nuclear weapons using plutonium it extracted from the Yongbyon reactor in the 1990s. Now there are fears it will reprocess plutonium fuel rods that were separated from the Yongbyon reactor, and later stored under supervision by IAEA inspectors.

"They're going to be able to build four to five additional nuclear weapons within months if they begin that reprocessing operation," said Senator Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat.

South Korea, Japan and France strongly criticized the North Korean action.

The dispute has been escalating since October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a secret nuclear weapons program based on uranium enrichment.

The program violated several nuclear arms control agreements, and Washington and its allies suspended shipments of heavy fuel oil to the energy-starved country that were required under the 1994 deal. Instead of giving up its nuclear program, Pyongyang said it had no choice but to revive old nuclear facilities that were frozen under the same agreement.