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North Korea backing away from nuclear deal

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Friday it was working on restarting its nuclear plant and dismissed the prospect of being removed from a U.S. terrorism blacklist in return for a disarmament deal.

The North said it had begun work to rebuild the Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant, which made bomb-grade plutonium. The plant previously was being taken apart under a much-delayed disarmament-for-aid deal it reached with five regional powers, including Washington.

“The DPRK (North Korea) neither wishes to be delisted as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ nor expects such a thing to happen,” the North’s official KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

Work has been under way to restore Yongbyon’s nuclear facilities “to their original state,” the spokesman said.

In Washington, the United States reacted calmly to the announcement, saying North Korea had not yet made the plant operational.

“They have not got to that point yet. We would urge them not to get to that point,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack when asked about North Korea’s statement.

He urged Pyongyang to agree to a mechanism to verify the claims it has made about the extent of its nuclear program.

Last month, North Korea said it planned to restart Yongbyon because it was angry at Washington for not taking it off its terrorism blacklist. In early September, it made minor but initial moves to restart the plant, U.S. officials said.

Washington has said it will remove Pyongyang from the list once it allows inspectors to verify claims it made about its nuclear arms production. Once removed, the North can better tap into international finance and expand its meager trade.

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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.

But McCormack suggested any such thinking could be wrong.

“Look, you know, I don’t know who the next president, who the next secretary of state is going to be, but I would wager that they’re not going to get a much different deal from the next administration as they’re getting from this administration,” he said.

In Vienna, diplomats said North Korea has not notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its plans to reactivate Yongbyon. IAEA monitors have been at Yongbyon since mid-2007 and seals and cameras were installed in the complex to verify the shutdown process.

Other diplomats said North Korea restored some equipment to Yongbyon. But one said: “North Korea had extensively dismantled the complex and it would be a huge endeavor to get it going again, requiring several months at least.”

A South Korean official familiar with the talks said what lies ahead may be drawn-out negotiations but it did not mean Pyongyang was about to quit the disarmament process for good.

“I believe there is continued interest (by the North) in the overall six-way process,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

McCormack said the United States would also “remain engaged” with the North Koreans and would not give up on the six-nation process that led to the disarmament-for-aid deal.

A video grab shows missiles being paraded in central Pyongyang April 25, 2007. REUTERS/KRT via Reuters TV

“We’ll see what North Korea does. The ball is really in their court,” he said.

The South Korean official said the North knows aid and disablement are linked. Energy-starved North Korea has been receiving partial shipments over the past several months of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil for previous progress it has made under the deal.

North Korea, which exploded a nuclear device about two years ago, began to disable Yongbyon in early November as called for in the deal it struck with China, the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The disablement -- mostly completed except for a few key steps that involve both spent and unused nuclear fuel rods -- was aimed at putting Yongbyon out of the plutonium production business for at least a year.

Friday’s announcement came after U.S. and South Korean officials said last week that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may have suffered a stroke, which raised questions about succession in Asia’s only communist dynasty and who controls its nuclear arsenal.

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Susan Cornwell in Washington and Mark Heinrich in Vienna)

Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Jeremy Laurence