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South Korea wants North to keep nuclear plant shut

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy on Friday pressed North Korea to halt plans to rebuild a mothballed nuclear plant that makes arms-grade plutonium and instead return to the bargaining table to discuss disarmament.

Envoys from regional powers called a hastily arranged meeting in Beijing from Friday to discuss the secretive North’s move earlier this week to take the initial steps of restarting its ageing Soviet-era nuclear plant, which was being taken apart as part of a six-way disarmament deal.

“This is a critical moment and we should try to break this deadlock as soon as possible so that North Korea can promptly restart nuclear disarmament and come back to the six-party talks,” Kim Sook before leaving for the Chinese capital.

Kim said he plans to meet the nuclear envoys from the United States and Japan on Friday and then China’s envoy on Saturday.

In a briefing Kim held with South Korean media on Thursday, local reporters quoted a government official as saying North Korea was gathering the debris from the reactor’s cooling tower it blew up in June.

South Korea’s foreign ministry barred foreign media from Kim’s briefing.

The United States has been in “near daily” contact with North Korea on how to verify the contents of a declaration on its nuclear inventory submitted in June and is open to the two sides meeting in Beijing this week, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.

The official said the contacts, including the most recent, which took place on Wednesday, are one reason Washington is not unduly disturbed by Pyongyang’s decision to take out of storage equipment at its nuclear complex.

The impoverished North stands to receive ample aid and be taken off a U.S. terrorism blacklist if it abides by the deal it reached with the South, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

In November, North Korea began taking apart three key parts of its Yongbyon nuclear plant -- a facility that makes nuclear fuel, an atomic reactor and a complex that separates plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel.

The North has completed most of the required disablement steps, which are designed to put it out of the plutonium production business for at least one year.

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 programmes.

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 believe it can wait for a new U.S. president to try to get a better deal.

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, have 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.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington)

Editing by Jonathan Hopfner and David Fox