South Korea appeals to IAEA over nuclear experiments
South Korea urged the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog on Thursday not to report it to the Security Council over its work with atom bomb-grade material, and diplomats said any such decision was likely to wait until March.
Amid a furore over Iran's nuclear programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors' meeting in Vienna was expected to defer its decision on South Korea's undeclared nuclear experiments, the diplomats said.
Earlier this month, the IAEA said in a report that South Korea enriched a tiny amount of uranium in 2000 to a level close to that required for use in an atomic weapon, contradicting previous denials by Seoul.
South Korean scientists also separated a tiny amount of bomb-grade plutonium in 1982 without notifying the IAEA.
"Korea does not have any nuclear programme other than for peaceful purposes," Vice Foreign Minister Choi Young-jin said in a speech prepared for delivery to the IAEA governors' meeting.
"Our non-proliferation credential is exemplary beyond any doubt."
Seoul appeared to receive some support from Washington, which praised South Korea for its openness and cooperation with the IAEA investigation.
Western diplomats said South Korea "would lose face" if referred to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions, especially in view of allegations against North Korea.
North Korea, which has cited South Korea's experiments as one reason for holding up multilateral negotiations aimed at ending its own nuclear arms work, was referred to the Security Council last year after Pyongyang expelled IAEA inspectors. The Security Council has taken no action.
"Some concerns have been expressed that even reporting failures should be referred to the U.N. Security Council, even if only for informational purposes. But issues of a technical nature can and should be dealt with within the IAEA," Choi said.
Several diplomats on the IAEA's board of governors, which met to discuss the nuclear violations of South Korea and Iran, said a postponement of any decision on South Korea was likely. A failure to report Seoul now could however undermine U.S. efforts to have Iran hauled before the Security Council.
The United States says Iran, which concealed its uranium enrichment programme from the U.N. for nearly two decades, is using its civilian programme as a cover for building an atomic bomb. Iran denies it.
Washington has no such fears about South Korea.
"The United States welcomes and applauds the corrective actions that (South Korea) has taken," U.S. delegate to the IAEA George Glass said in the written text of a speech. "The United States looks forward to South Korea continuing the same level of cooperation and good faith it has displayed."
Several non-aligned diplomats told Reuters that the different U.S. attitudes to Seoul and Tehran showed a double standard.
"Allies of the U.S. can do what they want," one said.
During the closed-door board meeting, 21 countries spoke. Choi said that none of the countries spoke in favour of a Security Council referral. Diplomats said the issue would be revisited in March.
Diplomats said Washington and other capitals would try to persuade South Korea to accept a U.N. report that would praise Seoul for coming clean about its failure to report all its research to the IAEA.