BEIJING -- The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Saturday that North Korea has partially built a facility that could produce a key ingredient for nuclear weapons, but he reported no clear evidence of a nuclear arms program.
IAEA Director Hans Blix, at the end of a weeklong visit to North Korea, confirmed at a news conference in Beijing that a suspect building in the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon, near the capital Pyongyang, was a nuclear reprocessing plant.
But Blix, who toured the Yongbyon facility, said the plant remained unfinished and was used as a laboratory for what North Korean officials said were civilian experiments with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium.
Along with civilian uses, plutonium can be used as the core of a nuclear weapon, and North Korean officials have admitted producing small amounts of the material in 1990. Blix declined to say exactly how much, citing IAEA confidentiality rules.
'It was a tiny amount, not enough, far from what you would need for a bomb,' Blix said.
Blix's preliminary tour of North Korean nuclear power facilities came under a long-delayed safeguards accord that will allow IAEA officials to conduct the first international inspection of North Korean nuclear facilities within the next month.
After months of stalling, Pyongyang agreed to the inspections last month and on May 4 submitted its first detailed report on the country's nuclear facilities, promising the IAEA inspectors can visit any sites they wish.
Blix reported no clear evidence that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons, as has been alleged by Western nations. But he said he could not be conclusive until after the inspection.
'In a closed society ... it may be of course easier to hide something than in an open society,' Blix said. 'Confidence can only come from increasing openness.
'The safeguards declaration that they deposited with us is an important first step in openness. The inspection that will take place shortly is the next step,' he added.
North Korea is still in the infancy of its nuclear program, with a 5- megawatt experimental reactor at Yongbyon and larger reactors under construction at other sites. Pyongyang contends its program is for energy to reduce the country's reliance on coal.
But Western concern over a possible secret nuclear weapons program has slowed North Korea's efforts to improve relations with the United States, Japan and other nations.
The Yongbyon facility has been the most controversial, with U.S. intelligence calling the suspect building a reprocessing plant. Despite North Korean denials, Blix said it was too large -- nearly 600 feet -- to be a simple laboratory.
'If it were in operation and complete, then in our terminology it would be a reprocessing plant,' Blix said, adding, however, there is 'no work there at present.'
He said some of the equipment required for full reprocessing activities was missing. He saw 'no traces' the North Koreans had removed such equipment before his visit, but said the IAEA inspectors would check that further.
North Korean officials indicated they had ordered equipment to finish the plant, but Blix said they did not appear ready to do so.
Blix said he also was shown huge underground shelters built into hillsides at Yongbyon, constructed against what the North Koreans told him was 'the risk of attack,' but they appeared empty.
He further asserted the IAEA had 'taken a number of steps' to diminish North Korea's ability to keep nuclear weapons development activities secret from inspectors, as Iraq had managed to do.