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Seoul Scientist Calls Uranium Test 'Academic'
By James Brooke
Staff Writer
IAEA inspection team

South Korea's enrichment of a "minuscule" amount of uranium was a one-time "academic test" tacked on to other, unrelated laser experiments and intended to get more mileage from contaminated equipment intended for the scrap heap, the president of the South Korean government's nuclear research institute, said in an interview here on Monday.

"When they said they wanted to do this research, I said go ahead," said Chang In Soon, president of the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute, part of the Ministry of Science and Technology. "But I said, do it fast and scrap it straight away afterward."

The enrichment, in January 2000, apparently violated several treaties aimed at keeping the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons and weapons-grade fuel. Disclosures of the experiment prompted an intensive inspection here last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Inspectors left over the weekend carrying back to their base in Vienna a sample of the enriched uranium.

"I knew there was an international agreement, but it was such a small-scale experiment, I didn't think it would be a problem," said Dr. Chang, a chemist by training. "Then, we scrapped the equipment afterward. If we had ambitions, why would we scrap the equipment?"

The equipment, he continued, is unusable because of radioactive contamination and is stored in a protective vault on the institute's parklike campus.

Dr. Chang In-Soon

At the time of the experiment, Dr. Chang said, he was informed that the enrichment level went only to 10 percent, slightly above levels in South Korea's nuclear power plants. Reports from Vienna last week talked of enrichment levels reaching 80 percent. A preliminary report should be ready in Vienna in about 10 days. Speaking in Korean through an interpreter, Dr. Chang blamed "the crude curiosity of the research scientists" for the enrichment.

"I am responsible for everything; I cannot blame the researchers," he said. "To be frank, our researchers are not that aware of the international accords. It was such a small-scale experiment that I believed it was O.K. to allow it."

Under an I.A.E.A. inspection protocol ratified by the South Korean National Assembly in February, Seoul had until mid-August to give to the United Nations agency a detailed report on nuclear research. Dr. Chang said that when he reported the enrichment experiment to his superiors at the Ministry of Science and Technology in June, "they were dumbfounded."

He declined to identify the researchers or to make them available for interviews, adding, "They would just say what I have been saying."

He did say they were in their 30's and 40's, not members of "the Park Chung Hee generation."

In the 1970's, the second half of Mr. Park's presidency, South Korea reportedly embarked on a secret attempt to make a nuclear bomb. Dr. Chang, who took over the institute here in April 1999, said he believed that the bomb project had never gone beyond the talking stage.

On Monday, he said his institute is open to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency "any time, any place."

In the tense atmosphere of the divided Korean peninsula, the enrichment project's biggest impact may be to undermine the effort to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, an effort intended to avoid a regional nuclear arms race.

The sole nuclear reactor at
the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute

"From a technical and scientific perspective, it's no big deal, and South Korea acquired no significant quantity of enriched uranium," said Peter Hayes, an Australian antinuclear activist who extensively researched South Korea's nuclear bomb program of the 1970's. Then, listing the treaties the experiment may have violated, he added, "But, politically and legally, it's an enormous embarrassment."

Looking ahead to the next round of regional talks on North Korea's nuclear program, Mr. Hayes said the enrichment experiment here at Taejon had given North Korea "a ready-made, high-caliber projectile to counter the U.S. and its allies at the six-party talks."

In the region, commentators fear that the experiment will provide a propaganda chip to the North, which is run by a secretive, ultranationalist government that clings to nuclear weapons as its core defense against the United States.

"Seoul's production of highly enriched uranium may come as a windfall to Pyongyang, providing it with a lever to change the tide of the talks in its favor," the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest-selling conservative newspaper, said in its lead editorial on Sunday.

The Monday issue of Korea Times editorialized: "No matter how the North reacts to the experiment, the government needs to strengthen its watch on nuclear-related activities and strictly observe the global nuclear protocols."

Many Koreans have noted that in 1991 South Korea agreed with North Korea to forgo acquiring uranium enrichment and reprocessing. With the exception of the experiment here, South Korea has kept up its side of the bargain. In contrast, North Korea has embarked on a nuclear weapons program.

Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute

For South Korea, there is an economic cost. It must import the fuel to power its 19 nuclear power plants, the source of 40 percent of its electricity. It costs South Korea about $370 million a year to import enriched uranium.

"It is a huge loss for Korea not to be able to reprocess and enrich uranium," Kim Tae Woo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a part of the National Defense Ministry, said in an interview. "South Korea has been over-cooperating with the international community. The U.S. and other members of the international community know this, so they will not criticize Korean experimenters on this."

"If the international community criticizes South Korea, Korean experts would be outraged," the researcher concluded.

In January 2003, North Korea expelled I.A.E.A. inspectors, declared that it was quitting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and then announced that it was reprocessing spent fuel rods to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons.

As punishment, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union voted last year to suspend construction of two nuclear reactors in North Korea. On Monday, the South Korean unification minister, Chung Dong Young, told reporters that the suspension would probably be extended for a year more.

"The project is linked with the resolution of North Korea's nuclear issue, and it is inevitable to extend the suspension of the project for one more year," the minister said, referring to an October board meeting of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the agency set up to oversee the 1995 accord under which North Korea agreed to freeze and dismantle its nuclear program.

The above article is from The New York Times.

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