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World News

Possible signs of NKorea nuclear shutdown seen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has seen signs in recent days that North Korea is preparing to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear complex as called for under a six-country agreement, a U.S. official said on Monday, but other officials were more cautious.

A digitalglobe satellite image shows a nuclear facility in Yongbyon, North Korea September 29, 2004. The United States has seen signs in recent days that North Korea is preparing to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear complex as called for under a six-country agreement, a U.S. official said on Monday, but other officials were more cautious. REUTERS/Digital Globe

“It looks as though the North Koreans are preparing to shut down the facility ... That’s our sense of what we’re seeing,” the official told Reuters without giving details.

But another official said, “It’s too soon to tell whether they are shutting it down.”

“My understanding is that some of what we have seen in recent weeks is maintenance and the like, but we’ll have a better idea after ElBaradei visits this week,” the second official said, referring to Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Both officials, who have access to U.S. intelligence on North Korea, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. The United States frequently has spy satellites trained on North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test in October.

A shutdown of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant by mid-April is the centrepiece of the February 13 accord reached in six-party talks grouping North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and host China.

ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Monday that inspecting and closing facilities behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons program would be complex as the two sides seek to rebuild severed ties.

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He was in Beijing en route to North Korea, where he is to negotiate the return of agency inspectors as part of the accord.

SHUTDOWN POSSIBLE BY APRIL 13

U.S. officials said they believed the shutdown of the Yongbyon complex could be accomplished by April 13 as the agreement stipulated.

“It can be done in a short period of time (and) we’re reasonably confident they will take that step,” one official said.

The U.S. State Department said the chief U.S. negotiator on North Korea, Chris Hill, will be in Beijing on Wednesday for meetings aimed at working out details of the agreement.

Hill, U.S. assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is expected to attend working group sessions on nonproliferation and security and will also be at another round of six-party talks on North Korea set for March 19.

“This is good, positive that these working groups are meeting for the first time. It fulfils one of the requirements of the Beijing agreement. Certainly we will be looking for all parties to live up to their agreements reached and take the specific requests required of them,” U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

The February 13 deal offered North Korea aid and improved security in return for first steps to dismantling its atomic facilities within 60 days. Last week, Hill attended a meeting in New York with North Korean officials on normalising U.S.-North Korean relations.

Casey said it was likely that Hill would meet his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan before the March 19 meeting but a time had not yet been set.

During his travels, Hill may also meet ElBaradei, Casey said.

Additional reporting by Sue Pleming

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