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North Korea/Iran: Tehran, Pyongyang Raise Stakes In Nuclear Crises

  • Charles Recknagel --> Iran's Hassan Rohani (file photo) The stakes are rising in the world's two nuclear-arms crises. North Korea says it is using a nuclear reactor to produce weapons-grade material and plans to expand its atomic arsenal. And Iran says it may resume some suspended activities Washington says could be used to produce bomb-making material in the future. RFE/RL looks at the latest challenges to hopes of limiting global nuclear proliferation and how the international community is responding.

Prague, 12 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program have jumped dramatically following Pyongyang's declaration that it plans to expand its arsenal.

A news announcer announced the new plans on North Korean television yesterday: "We have been taking steps necessary to increase our nuclear arsenal for defense purposes, with the basic purpose of developing our nuclear-power industry."

The announcer said that one step was the successful extraction of 8,000 spent fuel rods from North Korea's main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Experts say the spent fuel rods could yield enough plutonium to build three or four more nuclear weapons.

The statement confirmed that North Korea -- believed to already have at least two crude nuclear bombs -- remains determined to be a nuclear power.

Pyongyang threw out UN nuclear arms inspectors and withdrew from the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) two years ago (January 2004) amid charges it was misusing its nuclear energy and research facilities to develop nuclear weapons.

South Korean Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo said in Seoul today that Pyongyang's announcement set back international efforts to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program in exchange for financial and technical aid.

"These measures not only worsen the situation and go against the agreement for a nuclear-free [Korean] Peninsula but also negatively affect the current efforts to restart six-way talks," Rhee said.

The six-party talks involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Washington said yesterday that Pyongyang's declaration underlines the need to restart the stalled talks.
"We certainly will support referral to the United Nations Security Council if Iran breaches its obligations and undertakings." - Blair

As the North Korea nuclear crisis escalates, tensions are also rising over Iran's nuclear activities. Hassan Rohani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said today that Iran will resume some activities associated with uranium enrichment that had been suspended for talks with EU states.

"Continuing talks [with the EU] in the current form is not acceptable for us," Rohani said. "In fact, [the negotiation process] suffers from imbalance, because we have suspended [activities associated with uranium enrichment], and therefore prolonging the talks is very hard and costly for us. Whereas it not only has no costs for Europe, but it perhaps falls within their interests. That is why we believe that we must resume part of our [uranium-processing] activity."

Iranian nuclear officials say the resumption of work would be at a uranium-processing facility near the central city of Isfahan. The Isfahan facility is used to convert mined uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas. The gas is a precursor material for enriching uranium in centrifuges.

Uranium enrichment is a so-called dual-use activity that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or --at high levels of enrichment -- material for nuclear bombs.

Great Britain, France, and Germany -- dubbed the EU-3 -- have sought to convince Tehran to give up dual-use activities in exchange for trade incentives and technical help with Iran's commercial nuclear-energy program. Iran had previously pledged to suspend such activities as the precondition for the talks.

Today the EU-3 foreign ministers warned they would break off negotiations if Tehran resumes suspended activities. The ministers said in a letter to Rohani, who heads Iran's Supreme National Security Council, that "the consequences could only be negative for Iran."

The EU-3 have previously assured Washington that if talks with Iran fail they will back U.S. calls to refer the Iran nuclear crisis to the UN Security Council. The United States charges Iran with trying to acquire a weapons program under the cover of commercial nuclear activities.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on today that "we certainly will support referral to the United Nations Security Council if Iran breaches its obligations and undertakings."

However, it remains uncertain whether the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose economic sanctions, would be able to reach a united position on Iran. Two of the council's five permanent members, Russia and China, have said the Iran nuclear crisis should be resolved at the lower level of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), instead.

The latest developments with North Korea and Iran come as the international community struggles to find better ways to limit nuclear-weapons proliferation. The UN is currently holding a four-week conference reviewing the NPT. The 1970 treaty binds signatory nations to forego nuclear-weapons-development programs if they want to have access to commercial nuclear technology.

But the conference, now almost halfway through, was deadlocked until yesterday by demands from Egypt that its final statement include a position on the contentious issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Cairo wants the conference to criticize Israel as the only regional state with presumed nuclear weapons.

Today, conference President Sergio Duarte of Brazil said the deadlock had been broken by an agreement to treat the Middle East issue separately from the final statement. The compromise should clear the way for the conference to finally start work on strengthening the treaty.

Key problems with the NPT include the difficulties of ensuring compliance with it and limiting nations' access to dual-use technologies that can lead to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Nonproliferation experts have warned that failure to now strengthen the NPT could encourage other states to join the race for nuclear weapons in the future.