VIENNA, Austria: North Korea plans to reactivate the nuclear plant that provided the plutonium for its atomic test explosion within a week, the chief UN nuclear inspector said Wednesday.
The move is a further sign that the country is making good on threats to restart a nuclear program that allowed it to conduct the test blast.
The actions could also be strategic. Pyongyang could use the year it would take to restart its sole reprocessing plant as a large bargaining chip to wrest further concessions from the US and other nations seeking to strip it of its atomic program.
North Korean officials have informed the IAEA inspectors that they plan to introduce nuclear material to the [Yongbyon] reprocessing plant in one week s time, said International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei in a statement.
The statement said ElBaradei told the IAEA board that – acting on a North Korean request – his inspectors removed all agency seals and surveillance equipment from the reprocessing plant and its immediate area, completing the work on Wednesday.
The North Koreans further stated that from here on the IAEA inspectors will have no further access to the reprocessing plant, the statement said.
North Korea in recent days had already signaled it would break out of a six-nation disarmament-for-aid deal, announcing that it was making thorough preparations to start up Yongbyon.
Gregory L. Schulte, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, called Pyongyang s the moves unsettling. In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young expressed deep concerns.
But their comments were measured, reflecting fears that harsh condemnation would backfire by accelerating North Korea s actions.
The IAEA has been monitoring the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, which were shut down and then sealed as part of a North Korean pledge to disable its nuclear program. That move was meant to be a step toward eventually dismantling Yongbyon in return for diplomatic concessions and energy aid equivalent to 1 million tons of oil under a February 2007 deal with South Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan.
Scientists began disabling its reactor in November, and in June blew up the Yongbyon cooling tower in a dramatic show of its commitment to the pact. Eight of the 11 steps needed to disable the reactor were completed by July, North Korean officials said.
But the accord hit a snag in mid-August when the US refused to remove North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism until it accepted a plan to verify its nuclear programs. North Korea said verification had never been part of the deal.
A North Korean envoy confirmed on Friday that authorities had stopped disabling Yongbyon and intended to restart the facility.
It is the second time that North Korea has restarted the Yongbyon plant and ordered IAEA inspectors out. In 2002, a deal committing the US to help Pyongyang build a peaceful nuclear program unraveled.
Pyongyang subsequently quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January 2003 and announced it had nuclear weapons a little more than two years later.
A UN official who demanded anonymity for divulging confidential information said Wednesday that other nuclear sites in North Korea remained under IAEA purview. She also said agency seals remained on the spent fuel rods that were removed from Yongbyon under the terms of the deal, but officials expected that North Korea would soon ask for those seals to be removed as well.
The fuel rods are key to producing the plutonium the North would need to restart its weapons program. More than 60 percent of the thousands of fuel rods in the plant were removed and put under IAA seal. -Associated Press writer Jean H. Lee contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.