SEOUL Four regional powers plan to meet in Beijing in the next few days to discuss how to halt North Korea's steps toward restarting its aging nuclear plant that makes arms-grade plutonium, officials said on Thursday.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said the North had told the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency Tuesday of its plans to restart its Yongbyon plant. It then moved stored equipment back to the Soviet-era reactor.
"It's deeply regrettable that this happened at this critical moment," Yu said at a news briefing.
South Korea said its nuclear envoy, Kim Sook, would meet U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in Beijing Friday. A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said efforts were being made to have Japan's and China's nuclear envoys join the talks later in a four-way discussion.
The North stopped disabling Yongbyon in August, angered by Washington's failure to drop it from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The United States said North Korea must first agree on a system to verify Pyongyang's disclosures about its nuclear programs.
Analysts said the North might be trying to pressure the outgoing Bush administration as it looks for diplomatic successes to bolster its legacy. The North might also be thinking it can wait for a new U.S. president to try to get a better deal.
In November, North Korea started taking apart the nuclear plant in return for aid. Most of the disablement has been completed and experts said it would take a year or more for the North to restart the plant.
U.S. inspectors are currently in Yongbyon, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Pyongyang, to monitor disablement.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the United States would seek clarification from the North Koreans and that once a verification system was set, then Pyongyang would come off the U.S. state sponsor of terrorism list.
"I think that that message will be delivered to the North Koreans," she told reporters. "We're going to try to make sure that we keep North Korea headed in the right direction."
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they viewed North Korea's moves more as a negotiating tactic than a genuine effort to rebuild Yongbyon, which proliferation experts believe has produced enough plutonium for six to eight bombs.
"The North Koreans have a remarkable record of misreading American politics," said Brad Glosserman, an executive director of the CSIS Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii.
Proliferation experts have said that trade sanctions placed on North Korea make it difficult for it to acquire the parts it needs to restart Yongbyon, where some of the facilities might be beyond repair because of their age.
"There is no indication from any source that the North Koreans are in any position to actually begin operating those facilities," said Glosserman.
In June, the North destroyed the plant's cooling tower, saying it wanted to show its commitment to the nuclear deal. This would need to be rebuilt for the reactor to function.
China has hosted the six-country nuclear talks on ending the atomic ambitions of North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test about two years ago.
"It's important, I think, for the region beyond Japan that we work collectively to get this North Korean denuclearization of the peninsula resolved in a satisfactory manner," Lieutenant-General Edward Rice, commander of U.S. military forces in Japan, told Reuters in an interview at Yokota Air Base.
(Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun in Seoul, Rodney Joyce and Linda Sieg in Tokyo and Arshad Mohammed and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Tait)