Allies discuss N. Korea nuke move
SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- The United States and its allies in Asia are discussing a response to North Korea's decision to reactivate a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
The reclusive communist state began removing seals and monitoring equipment that international nuclear inspectors had placed on the Yongbyong nuclear reactor at the weekend, North Korea's official news agency said on Sunday.
The move was corroborated by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which issued a statement on Saturday condemning the decision.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke over the weekend with the foreign ministers of China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan about North Korea, U.S. State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said.
"We will continue consultations with friends and allies in light of this latest move from the North Korean regime," Fintor said.
"We urge the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) not to restart its frozen nuclear facilities, including the five-megawatt reactor," said Fintor.
"A move to restart them would fly in the face of the international consensus that the North Korean regime must fulfill all its commitments, and, in particular, dismantle its covert weapons program," he said.
Fintor said the United States would seek a peaceful resolution, but added, "Let me underscore that the U.S. will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments and we will not bargain or offer inducement for North Korea to live up to the treaties and commitments it has signed."
South Korea called on the North to return to the status quo, while promising to work with China, Russia, the European Union, the United States, Japan and the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, to resolve the situation.
"North Korea's action is extremely regrettable," said Shim Yoon-jo, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman.
"It has been our consistent position North Korea must freeze its nuclear system," Shim said. "Our government strongly demands North Korea immediately restore the surveillance equipment."
The IAEA reported that Pyongyang had cut most of the seals that inspectors had placed at the nuclear site, which was subject to a freeze in 1994 under the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, and that North Korea was blocking the monitoring equipment at the reactor.
In a statement from the IAEA, its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, "expressed 'deep regret' at the DPRK's actions of December 21 to cut most of the seals and impede the functioning of surveillance equipment installed at the 5MW(e) reactor."
That reactor has a spent fuel pond containing some 8,000 irradiated fuel rods, the IAEA said.
The rods "are of particular concern because they could be reprocessed to recover plutonium for nuclear weapons," Fintor said.
"They have no relevance for the generation of electricity."
North Korea said on December 12 that it would re-start the reactor, a move in its dispute with the United States apparently sparked by U.S. President George W. Bush's characterization of the North as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.
Under the Agreed Framework, Washington promised to send fuel oil to Pyongyang and to organize the construction of light-water reactors to replace North Korean reactors that produced weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product.
North Korea, in return, promised to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.
The agreement began unraveling in October, when U.S. diplomats said Pyongyang had admitted having a nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has not admitted making a nuclear weapon, but North Korean officials told reporters in November that the country is "entitled" to have such a weapon and other weapons "more powerful than that" to defend itself.
The officials cited an "ever-growing" nuclear threat from the United States, saying it would be "naive" to think "the DPRK would sit idle under such a situation."
After North Korea's admission, the United States ended the fuel-oil shipments to the impoverished country. North Korea cited the loss of the fuel as the reason for re-starting the reactor, but Fintor did not accept that claim.
"North Korea's action today, disputing arrangements for IAEA monitoring of the spent fuel rods, raises further serious concerns and belies North Korea's announced justification to produce electricity," Fintor said.
"Its refusal to come into compliance with its safeguards obligations is one of our primary concerns."
In an interview conducted after the December 12 announcement, ElBaradei said that North Korea was closer to building a nuclear weapon than Iran and Iraq.
"We know at least that North Korea has a reprocessing plant, a process that ... reprocesses material into plutonium," he said. "They already have the technical capability if they want to have the plutonium."
On Wednesday, U.S. officials said China had sold North Korea 20 tons of a chemical that can be used to turn spent nuclear fuel into plutonium.
Tributyl phosphate (TBP) is also used to produce paint and plastics, but U.S. officials called the shipment "worrisome."
Washington has rejected Pyongyang's offer of a non-aggression pact, demanding concrete steps to end its nuclear weapons program as a condition for renewed talks.
Japan and South Korea have continued to hold separate talks with the North Koreans.
-- CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-ae, CNN White House correspondent Dana Bash and CNN Producer Maria Arbelaez contributed to this story.