SEOUL // A senior US envoy travelled to North Korea today in a bid to rescue a faltering nuclear disarmament deal and prevent Pyongyang from rebuilding a plant that made weapons-grade plutonium. The US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill's visit comes days after North Korea threatened to break away from the disarmament-for-aid package and try to start separating plutonium at its nuclear plant that was being taken apart under the deal.
A US official said Mr Hill drove across the heavily armed border on his way from Seoul to Pyongyang early today. Mr Hill told reporters yesterday he would press Pyongyang to accept a system to verify statements it made about its nuclear programme and answer US suspicions of a secret project to enrich uranium for weapons. "What they have been doing, obviously, goes against the spirit of what we have been trying to accomplish," Mr Hill said yesterday. He did not say when he planned to return.
Minor activity has been spotted at the site of the North's 2006 nuclear test, on the east coast and away from Yongbyon, indicating the North may be working "to restore it", South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a government source as saying. Smoke was seen rising from the site, probably from workers burning clothing and equipment, the source was quoted as saying. The South's spy agency could not confirm the report.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week that the North was expelling UN monitors from its Yongbyon nuclear plant and planned to start reactivating it in days, rolling back the disarmament deal and putting pressure on Washington. North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in October 2006, 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 US demands about verification, fearing it to be too intrusive. Washington countered by making clear it would only remove Pyongyang from its "state sponsors of terrorism" list once the North agreed to a "robust" mechanism.
Once off the list, the reclusive and destitute North would be better able to tap into international finance and trade. *Reuters