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North Korea moves mothballed equipment at Yongbyon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea has taken out of storage some mothballed equipment at its Yongbyon nuclear complex in what appeared a sign of displeasure over talks on ending its atomic programs, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

A Digital Globe satellite image shows a nuclear facility in Yongbyon, North Korea September 29, 2004. REUTERS/Digital Globe

The officials, who spoke on condition they not be named, said they viewed the 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.

However, they acknowledged that North Korea’s actions were subject to different interpretations and said they flew in the face of multilateral efforts to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programs under a 2005 disarmament-for-aid deal.

Pyongyang, which tested a nuclear bomb in 2006, began disabling the reactor and other facilities at Yongbyon in November as a step toward their ultimate dismantlement in exchange for economic aid and political concessions including removal from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.

A U.S. counter-proliferation official said Washington had seen evidence that some parts had been moved back to their original Yongbyon site but described this as “mostly symbolic, mostly done for effect in response to the negotiations.”

“It’s a step designed to show that they can take more steps if they want to,” said the official. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not real. It doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous. But people shouldn’t read too much into it.”

North Korea announced on August 26 it would stop disabling the Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear complex and accused the United States of violating the denuclearization deal negotiated by the two Koreas, China, Japan Russia and the United States.

Pyongyang said it did so because Washington had failed to drop it from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list. The United States said North Korea must first agree on a system to verify Pyongyang’s disclosures about its nuclear programs.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters the United States would keep its end of the bargain and played down the disagreement, saying the talks with North Korea have their “ups and downs.”

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“We are expecting North Korea to live up to its obligations and we will most certainly live up to our obligations,” she said. “We are going to continue to work toward the completion of verification protocol.”


U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Wednesday said Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea, would fly to Beijing on Thursday for consultations with Chinese officials.

McCormack said North Korea had begun to move equipment stored at Yongbyon, noting that U.S. officials are on the ground to oversee the disablement process, but that he could not confirm reports it had begun to reassemble the facility.

“To my knowledge, based on what we know from the folks on the ground, you don’t have an effort to reconstruct, re-integrate this equipment back into the Yongbyon facility,” McCormack added at his daily briefing.

Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said the equipment that had been put back in place was not operational. He said North Korea had informed U.S. officials at Yongbyon on Tuesday that they were going to start reversing the process of disablement.

This official said Hill’s mission in Beijing was “to see if we can get the North Koreans to reverse what they have done.” He said he had not heard of plans for Hill to meet North Korean officials in Beijing but his schedule was a work in progress.

The State Department did not provide further details about what Hill, the U.S. point man on North Korea, would do while in China. He is not traveling to any other countries in Asia, McCormack said, and will return to Washington this weekend.

The State Department announced his trip hours after U.S. and Japanese media reports surfaced that North Korea was reassembling Yongbyon.

The North’s announcement that it would stop disabling Yongbyon confirmed the belief of some analysts that its communist leaders have no intention of giving up nuclear weapons, a diplomatic trump card that has repeatedly won them concessions in the past.

Additional reporting by Philip Barbara in Washington, Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo and Mark Heinrich in Vienna; editing by Mohammad Zargham