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South Korea: Debate Heats Up Over Seoul's Nuclear Admissions

North Korea is accusing the United States of applying "double standards" in its role as one of the mediators in six-party nuclear nonproliferation talks on the Korean peninsula. The criticism by Pyongyang's envoy to the United Nations yesterday was the country's first official reaction to South Korea's recent admission that it had experimented with small amounts of uranium and plutonium. Plutonium and enriched uranium are two key ingredients of nuclear weapons. Conducting such tests without immediately informing the UN's nuclear watchdog -- the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- is a violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Both North and South Korea signed that treaty, but Pyongyang withdrew in January 2003.

Prague, 9 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- South Korea is downplaying a warning from North Korea about an accelerated nuclear-arms race on the peninsula.

Seoul says its admissions about experiments with uranium and plutonium should not disrupt the international talks on Pyongyang's atomic-weapons programs.

South Korea admitted last week that its scientists had enriched a tiny amount of uranium in 2000 but had failed in its obligation to report the experiment to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Seoul also has revealed that its scientists extracted plutonium in 1982 without reporting it. The revelations came after the IAEA announced it had found evidence of the experiments during routine inspections.
"From the North Korean perspective, it all looks very much like double standards. Washington reacts very harshly to North Korea's much more developed programs, but then is much more negligent as far as the South Korean programs are concerned."

South Korean officials insist they have no interest in acquiring atomic bombs.

Patrick Koellner is a senior researcher at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany. He has been closely following developments on the Korean peninsula, including North Korea's reactions: "This is very much an expression of frustration on the part of North Korea relating to the fact that the United States has not substantially changed its negotiation position as far as North Korea's nuclear programs are concerned."

Koellner says Pyongyang's frustration is understandable: "From the North Korean perspective, it all looks very much like double standards. Washington reacts very harshly to North Korea's much more developed programs, but then is much more negligent as far as the South Korean programs are concerned."

Gary Samore, an expert on nonproliferation at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says Pyongyang has an excuse to try to set back the international talks focused on its nuclear-weapons programs: "The North Koreans are not interested right now in making any progress in the six-party talks. So they are using the revelations about the experiment in South Korea as an excuse to slow down the process of discussions."

Samore says the South Korean experiments were of little technical significance. But from a political standpoint, he says the issue illustrates the need for governments to ensure their scientists don't conduct experiments contrary to legal commitments made under international treaties: "Under that [NPT] treaty, South Korea is allowed to conduct experiments with nuclear material. But all such experiments have to be reported to the IAEA so it can verify that none of the material involved is being used for military purposes. So the experiments themselves are not illegal. But carrying them out without declaring them to the appropriate international agency is [illegal]."

Samore says South Korea started the initial stages of a clandestine nuclear weapons program during the early 1980s, when the future of its security relationship with the United States was in doubt. That was after Washington announced possible plans to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea: "The United States learned of this [nuclear] activity and through political pressure and persuasion was able to end the program at a very early stage."

Patrick Koellner of the Institute for Asian Affairs agrees with Samore's description of the historical background of the dispute. But he says rather than bolstering North Korea's confidence in Washington as a neutral mediator, recent events have strengthened Pyongyang's perception of the United States as a "puppet master of South Korea" that was aware of the experiments but did not pressure South Korea to report them.

Samore concludes that the planned withdrawal of some 12,000 U.S. troops from South Korea by the end of 2005 will not lead Seoul to restart nuclear tests in the near future. But he says the long-term outlook is less certain: "In the longer term we have to be concerned that if North Korea's nuclear-weapons program continues without any constraint, and if there are further strains in the U.S.-South Korean security relationship, as there have been over the last few years, it is possible that the South Korean government could decide to revive its nuclear weapons-related activities."