The United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency said Friday that it might not be able to verify whether North Korea had diverted plutonium from a nuclear reactor, heightening suspicions of a clandestine weapons program.
Hans Blix, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, raised alarm bells in a report to Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, saying his inspectors had not been able to take samples properly.
The development created a flurry among Security Council members, with some wanting a meeting to warn Pyongyang to cooperate or face possible sanctions.
The IAEA is trying to verify that fuel from the reactor has not been diverted in the past for a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
A U.S. official said North Korea either has to stop refueling the reactor or reach an agreement with the IAEA on how the removed fuel rods will be stored so they can be analyzed by the IAEA.
"We are not too far away from a position where the history of the reactor and the IAEA's ability to assess it may be lost," said a European envoy, estimating that the IAEA had about five days to get an agreement.
Blix said, "At the time of writing this report, almost half of the fuel in the reactor core has been discharged and in a pattern that has precluded the agency's ability to implement the full range of the safeguard measures required."
If the discharge operation continued at the same rate, "the agency's opportunity to select, segregate and secure fuel rods for later measurements in accordance with agency standards will be lost within days."
If that happened, the IAEA "would not be in a position to verify, with any degree of confidence, that all nuclear material in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) that is subject to safeguards is in fact under safeguards. Specifically, the agency will not be in a position to verify the amount of plutonium produced" in North Korea, Blix added.
The problem involves nuclear fuel rods being unloaded from a reactor and the need of the IAEA to analyze special rods so that the reactor's history can be reconstructed, uncovering any possible evidence of past diversion of nuclear material into weapons.
The snag was the latest in a series of confrontations between the IAEA and North Korea over the government's secretive nuclear program and suspicions that it has been building nuclear weapons.
The United States suspects that some fuel had been diverted several years ago for the purpose of making bombs.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher indirectly alluded to the problem when he urged North Korea not to do anything that would prevent a third round of talks between the United States and North Korea on nuclear issues and more normal relations.
Answering questions after a speech in New York to the Asia Society, Christopher said that the United States was "holding out the prospect to North Korea of a more normal relationship."
He added, "I hope the leaders of that country will understand the tremendous value to their people that will come from cooperating in that dialogue and not do anything that will prevent us going forward with that dialogue."
The United States has had two rounds of talks with North Korea in New York and Geneva, but prospects of a third round depend on North Korea's allowing inspections of its nuclear program to go forward.