The United States said Monday reprocessing reactor fuel will do nothing to solve North Korea's daunting problems, and that Pyongyang should return to Chinese-sponsored disarmament talks. The comments follow news reports North Korea may have shut down its nuclear reactor to harvest plutonium for weapons.
Officials here will not discuss what U.S. intelligence may know about recent activity at North Korea's Yongbyong nuclear complex.
But they say the way for North Korea to deal with its international isolation and pressing economic needs is not trying to build weapons, but to return to the six-party nuclear talks and negotiate a disarmament agreement.
The comments follow news reports that U.S. and South Korean experts believe that North Korea has shut down the main reactor at Yongbyong, in a move that could mean that it is making good on a recent threat to remove fuel rods to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons.
The New York Times said Monday the reports are supported by commercial satellite photos of the nuclear plant, which suggest it was shut down or shifted to a very low power level about 10 days ago.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is closely watching activity on Yongbyong. He gave no details but said whatever is occurring, it will not help North Korea solve its problems.
"Running reactors or not running reactors, reprocessing or not reprocessing, is not going to get North Korea a solution to its troubles," he said. "It's not going to get them, as the Secretary [Rice] has said, the respect they desire and the assistance they need. And so whatever is going on in North Korea, and I can't get into the details but I do say we follow events at Yongbyong very closely, it's important to remember that they need to come back to talks if they're going to solve their problems."
A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said shutting down a reactor can be done for a variety of reasons, which would not be immediately apparent.
An American expert on North Korea, Selig Harrison, said he was told during a visit there earlier this month that the fuel rods would be harvested for plutonium to force the United States to negotiate on terms more favorable to Pyongyang.
The U.S. diplomat said the North Koreans tell people a lot of things, some true and some not, but that it is always done for effect, in this case apparently an attempt to get more negotiating leverage.
Spokesman Boucher said it is time for Pyongyang to give a clear commitment to return to the six-party talks and negotiate in a serious manner and that the United States remains willing to go back without preconditions.
The talks have been idle since a session in Beijing last June, though Mr. Boucher said the United States has no "time-line or deadline" for the negotiations.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan had a similar comment. But he said if North Korea refuses to return, the United States would have to consult with regional partners on the next step, and that a referral of the matter to the U.N. Security Council is "certainly one possibility."