Seoul: North Korea has ordered UN inspectors to leave the country, apparently following through on a decision to restart its nuclear weapons programme despite US criticism of “provocative threats.”
The communist nation announced Tuesday it would never take part again in six-nation nuclear disarmament talks and would restore the plants at Yongbyon which produced weapons-grade plutonium.
It was responding angrily to a UN Security Council statement Monday which condemned the North’s April 5 rocket launch and vowed tougher enforcement of existing missile-related sanctions.
Hours after the North’s announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said its inspectors had been ordered out.
North Korea “informed IAEA inspectors in the Yongbyon facility that it is immediately ceasing all cooperation with the IAEA,” Marc Vidricaire, spokesman for the UN nuclear watchdog, told reporters.
“It has requested the removal of all containment and surveillance equipment, following which IAEA inspectors will no longer be provided access to the facility. The inspectors have also been asked to leave the DPRK at the earliest possible time.”
They were overseeing the disabling of the Yongbyon plants as part of a February 2007 six-nation deal which the North says it will no longer observe.
The six-nation forum, which has been working since 2003, groups the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the inspectors’ expulsion an “unnecessary response” to a legitimate Security Council statement.
“Obviously we hope that there will be an opportunity to discuss this with not only our partners and allies but also eventually with the North Koreans,” she added.
Seoul analysts say the North is serious in its threats and the United States may have to offer direct talks to woo it back to six-party dialogue.
Still, US President Barack Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs said North Korea was making a serious mistake.
“We call on North Korea to cease its provocative threats and to respect the will of the international community and to honour its international commitments and obligations,” Gibbs said.
“North Korea’s announced threat to withdraw from the six-party talks and restart its nuclear programme is a serious step in the wrong direction.”
The Security Council had unanimously approved a statement condemning the rocket launch, which it said contravened a resolution passed after the North’s 2006 missile and nuclear tests.
The North insists it put a peaceful satellite into orbit, while the United States and its allies say it was instead a disguised missile test.
China and Russia blocked the Council from approving a new resolution which would have been binding on members, but the statement was still strong enough to stir Pyongyang’s wrath.
China, the North’s sole significant ally, urged it to stay in the talks, as did Japan, South Korea and Russia.
The North’s existing plutonium stockpile is thought to be large enough for six to 12 small nuclear bombs, according to differing estimates. It was unclear how long it would take to get Yongbyon up and running to produce more.
A Seoul official involved in the talks said North Korea had completed eight of 11 disablement steps and was working on a ninth, which involves withdrawing spent fuel rods from the reactor and placing them in a cooling pond.
Charles Pritchard, the US negotiator with North Korea when the negotiations began in 2003, said it was premature to consider the talks process as dead and buried despite the latest setback.
“The question now is when would the administration respond — hopefully not too soon, but at some point in the future it will be appropriate to re-engage them bilaterally,” he said
“You’ve got to do that anyway to get people back into the talks.”