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SEOUL (Reuters) - A senior U.S. envoy traveled to North Korea on Wednesday with compromise proposals to rescue a faltering nuclear disarmament deal and prevent Pyongyang from rebuilding a plant that made weapons-grade plutonium.
Over the past several weeks, North Korea has begun to revive a Soviet-era nuclear reactor that is capable of producing plutonium and expelled U.N. nuclear monitors.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill drove from Seoul to the heavily armed border, a U.S. official said. He arrived by car in Pyongyang in the afternoon, the North's KCNA news agency said.
A senior U.S. official has described Hill's visit as a "last-ditch effort to get things on track."
Yonhap news agency cited a South Korean government source familiar with the talks as saying: "The U.S. has come up with a revised draft verification protocol. Hill will try to reach a compromise on it."
But U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Hill was not going to Pyongyang with an offer to change the "substance" of the mechanism under discussion to verify the North's nuclear claims.
"He, of course, would talk about how the process can move forward, and any of the sort of choreography of that process, but ... he wasn't bringing with him any new substance, in terms of proposals," McCormack said in Washington.
"Chris really isn't plowing any new ground here," he said, adding he did not have details of Hill's discussions.
Analysts have 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 seek a better deal under a new U.S. president.
"What they have been doing, obviously, goes against the spirit of what we have been trying to accomplish," Hill said on Tuesday. He did not say when he planned to return. He was expected to stay overnight in Pyongyang and have more meetings with North Koreans on Thursday before heading to Seoul. He will then visit Beijing to report on the meetings as well as Tokyo.
Minor activity has been spotted at the site of the North's 2006 nuclear test, on the east coast and away from Yongbyon, indicating it may be working to restore the test site, Yonhap news agency quoted a separate government source as saying.
Smoke was seen rising from the site, probably from workers burning clothing and equipment, the source was quoted as saying, but there was no indication that heavy equipment was being moved. The South's spy agency could not confirm the report.
North and South Korea on Thursday will hold their first direct talks since a new president took office in Seoul and angered Pyongyang by pledging to take a hard line toward his neighbor, which may indicate an easing of tensions along the Cold War's last frontier.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week North Korea had expelled monitors from the plutonium producing part of the Yongbyon plant and planned to start reactivating the reactor in a week's time. Monitors remained in other areas of the complex, it said.
North Korea started to disable Yongbyon last November as part of the deal it reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
Experts have said most of the disablement steps, which would take about a year to reverse, have been completed and North Korea cannot easily get back into the plutonium producing business.
The North has balked at U.S. verification demands, fearing them to be too intrusive. Washington countered by saying it would only remove Pyongyang from its list of "state sponsors of terrorism" once the North agreed to a "robust" verification mechanism.
North Korea's official media on Wednesday blasted the U.S. plans on verification.
"The U.S. call for unilateral inspection of the DPRK (North Korea) is a gangster-like assertion intended to disarm the DPRK," the North's KCNA news agency cited one of its diplomats as saying at the United Nations last week.
Once off the list, the reclusive and destitute North would be better able to tap into international finance and trade.
The North is believed to have produced enough plutonium at Yongbyon to make at least six to eight nuclear weapons.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Bill Tarrant and David Storey