Iran, Syria, North Korea in hot seat at IAEA meet

The IAEA turned up the heat on Syria, Iran, and North Korea.

Vienna: The UN atomic watchdog expressed "great concern" on Thursday over North Korea as the United States said it believed the reclusive stalinist state may have built more clandestine nuclear sites in addition to those already known.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), holding its traditional year-end meeting at its headquarters in the Austrian capital, also turned up the heat on Syria and Iran, which are both under investigation for alleged illicit nuclear activity.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told a closed-door session of the board of governors that he was worried by reports North Korea has built a state-of-the-art uranium enrichment facility.

"It was with great concern that I learnt of recent reports about a new uranium enrichment facility, as well as the construction of a new light water reactor, in the DPRK (Democratic People`s Republic of Korea)," Amano said.

Earlier this month, a US scientist revealed he had been shown a new uranium enrichment plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex outside the capital North Korean capital Pyongyang.

The news has heightened international concern that North Korea -- which has conducted two nuclear weapons tests -- could produce highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium on top of the plutonium already in its possession.

The IAEA is not in a position to verify the reports since its inspectors have been barred from North Korea since last year.

Washington`s envoy to the IAEA, Glyn Davies, described the revelations as "disturbing" and said "there is a clear likelihood that DPRK has built other uranium enrichment-related activities in its territory."

Amano also appeared to ramp up pressure on Syria, saying he had written to the government there for the first time to try to bring some movement into a stymied two-year-long IAEA probe.

Amano told reporters later that it was the first time that an IAEA director general had contacted the Syrian government directly about the agency`s probe and diplomats close to the IAEA suggested Amano could soon start pushing for a "special inspection" in Damascus, a rarely-used tool that allows UN inspectors to request more intrusive access to sites.

If Syria were to block that request, it could face referral to the UN Security Council.

But Amano refused to say if he was ready to take that step.

"For the time being, I am awaiting the response from Syria," he told reporters. "And while waiting, it is not appropriate for me to speculate what will happen if there is not an answer."