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North Korea an 'imminent threat'

• N. Korea refuses Rice talks
North Korea
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
United States

LONDON, England (CNN) -- North Korea poses more of a nuclear threat than Iran, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency told CNN, because the country already has the nuclear material that would go into a weapon.

"We know North Korea has the plutonium that can go into the bomb," Mohammed ElBaradei told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.

"We have not seen any such material in Iran."

North Korea, he said, represents an "imminent threat or an imminent danger," while Iran is merely suspected of having a nuclear program.

"That is why, when people sometimes grumble about our slow pace in Iran, I would like them to compare that situation with North Korea," he said.

"In Iran we are active, we are generating information and we know what's going on, more or less. In Korea, it is an absolutely black hole." (Transcript)

ElBaradei said he could not discount the possibility that North Korea is building a nuclear weapon.

"They have that plutonium ... they have the industrial infrastructure, but more yeah importantly, they said [in early February] they are doing it," he said.

North Korea halted all cooperation with the IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, however, and kicked out agency monitors in December 2002.

When North Korea announced last month it had nuclear weapons it also said it would not take part in another round of six-party disarmament talks because of U.S. hostility toward its government.

The United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of six-party talks since 2003, aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons development in return for economic and diplomatic rewards.

Earlier this week, North Korea refused to have any dealings with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who in January labeled the country one of the world's "outposts of tyranny." (Full story)

The top U.S. diplomat is on a six day visit to Asia and is due to visit South Korea on Saturday after a stop in Japan.

There she will meet President Roh Moo-hyun and other top officials before heading to China for more consultations on the crisis.

In his interview with CNN, ElBaradei said the non-proliferation treaty allowed countries to explore nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

But it posed a problem, he said, because "things have changed since 1970" and know-how and technology have spread.

"A country that can have control of highly enriched uranium or plutonium is not far away from a nuclear weapon," he said.

"We need to make sure that every country in the future has what we call assurance of supply, that they have access to nuclear technology for electricity, for other applications, but try to minimize the risk associated with that by having an international consortium, for example, producing the fuel and then take back the fuel again under international supervision. ... No one country should enrich its own uranium."

A "microcosm of what we should have in the future," he said, is an agreement between Iran and Russia in which protocols were established for transferring nuclear fuel from Russia to Iran's Bushehr power plant and moving the spent fuel back to Russia.

The deal, signed last month, flew in the face of U.S. requests and heavy diplomatic pressure on Moscow.

Iran claims it is trying to "protect their activities," ElBaradei acknowledged, but would not say the country is trying to hide evidence concerning a possible nuclear program.

"They are fulfilling their legal obligations," he said, with a "minor infraction here and there."

And, he said, recent events are leading in the right direction, particularly the United States' support of a European initiative to bring Iran in line through dialogue.

Iran had a tepid response to the U.S. move to drop objections to its membership in the World Trade Organization.

"Basically, the Iranians are saying, 'This is not enough,'" ElBaradei said. But "we need to make sure the process continues ... as long as the parties are talking, we're on the right track."

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