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North Korea to expel
U.N. inspectors

North Korea said today it will expel United Nations inspectors and reactivate a nuclear lab where foreign officials say spent fuel rods can be reprocessed to extract weapons-grade plutonium.

In a letter sent to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea said it was reactivating the lab to give “safe storage” to spent fuel rods that will come from a reactor it plans to restart, according to North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA.

KCNA also said the North will expel two nuclear inspectors dispatched by the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.

The announcements appear to move North Korea closer to reactivating nuclear facilities mothballed in a deal with the United States in 1994.

Restarting its nuclear reactor could enable North Korea to produce nuclear weapons in as little as 30 days, one of Britain’s leading nuclear experts told the London Times.

John Large, who has worked with the Royal Navy, advised Russia on the sunken nuclear submarine Kursk, and is on the UK Nuclear Co-ordinating Group, said that North Korea’s only motive for restarting the reactor was to produce nuclear weapons.

North Korea claims that it is restarting the reactor to get badly needed electricity after the United States and its allies cut off oil shipments in response to recent revelations that the North Koreans had been covertly pressing ahead with efforts to develop nuclear weapons in violation of the 1994 agreement.

But U.S. officials say that power to be obtained from the 5-megawatt reactor is negligible, and North Korea is widely believed to be pushing the dispute to the brink of crisis to extract concessions at the negotiating table.

South Korea’s President-elect Roh Moo-hyun said North Korea’s defiant attitude could make it difficult for him to continue his predecessor’s policy of seeking reconciliation with Pyongyang after he takes office in February.

“Whatever North Korea’s rationale is in taking such actions, they are not beneficial to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, nor are they helpful for its own safety and prosperity,” Roh said in a statement.

North Korea state media accused Washington today of using the nuclear issue as a pretext for invasion. An English-language commentary by the KCNA referred to recent comments by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserting that the United States has the military strength to wage war against Iraq and North Korea at the same time.