South Korea denies nuclear weapons intentions despite disclosure of uranium enrichment test

Thursday, September 2nd 2004, 8:31 pm
By: News On 6

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ South Korea denied harboring any nuclear weapons ambitions Friday, saying a one-time uranium enrichment test by its scientists shouldn't derail U.S.-led efforts to dismantle rival North Korea's nuclear programs.

The denial _ stated repeatedly during a government interview with foreign news media _ came a day after South Korea admitted that its scientists conducted an unauthorized experiment in 2000 to enrich a small amount of uranium.

That admission to the International Atomic Energy Agency raised speculation that the South may have secretly dabbled with a weapons program, and confounded an international standoff over communist North Korea's nuclear weapons development.

Such an experiment could provide the North with a pretext to further delay the already stalling six-nation negotiations aimed at dismantling its nuclear facilities, which U.S. officials say are used to enrich uranium or yield plutonium for weapons.

``South Korea has never had, and does not have, enrichment or nuclear reprocessing programs, let alone a weaponization program,'' said Oh Joon, director general for international organizations at South Korea's Foreign Ministry.

Oh referred to the 2000 enrichment test _ conducted at South Korea's nuclear research center south of Seoul _ as an ``isolated scientific experiment,'' and dismissed any comparisons between it and suspected nuclear programs in such countries as Iran and North Korea.

He said South Korea doesn't have nuclear weapons capabilities.

``Since this was a one-time isolated scientific experiment, not part of any enrichment or weaponization program, we think this should not, and will not, have any impact on the ongoing six-nation nuclear talks,'' Oh said.

An IAEA team wrapped up a weeklong inspection in South Korea on Friday to verify the declaration the country made to the Austria-based U.N. nuclear watchdog last month and made public Thursday.

In the declaration, South Korea said its experiment ``involved the production of only milligram quantities of enriched uranium.''

Several pounds of highly enriched uranium are needed to build a bomb, experts say.

South Korea says it's too early to say whether its scientists perpetrated any serious violation of international nuclear nonproliferation agreements and thus should be punished.

Oh also refused to say whether the experiment produced any weapons-grade uranium. He said different levels of enrichment took place but that the average was much lower than weapons grade.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized the secret experiment as ``activity that should not have occurred.'' But he praised the U.S. ally for working with the IAEA to make sure the program has ended.

South Korea says the 2000 experiment involved separating just 0.01 ounce of uranium, and that the equipment used for the experiment was scrapped a few months after the test.

North Korea says it is building a nuclear deterrent to counter what it calls plans by the United States and South Korea to unleash a nuclear war on the divided Korean Peninsula.

The United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia have agreed to resume negotiations on the North's nuclear programs by the end of the month, but no date has been announced.