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South Korea Says North's Nuclear Compromise May Be Near


South Korean officials are suggesting a compromise aimed at reviving efforts to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons may not be far off. The United States and North Korea have been negotiating intensively on a means of confirming the accuracy of the nuclear declaration Pyongyang made earlier this year. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the potential breakthrough comes at a moment of brinksmanship by the North.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told reporters in Seoul Friday the United States will probably announce soon whether it intends to remove North Korea from a State Department list of nations suspected of sponsoring terrorism.

Washington promised last year to take the North off that list, as part of a broader international deal that committed Pyongyang to declare and disable its main nuclear programs.

President Bush delayed the scheduled removal in August, because North Korea refused to agree on steps for verifying the declaration it submitted earlier in the year was accurate. The North responded by ejecting international inspectors from the reprocessing facility at its main nuclear plant in Yongbyon. The United Nations said Friday Pyongyang had informed inspectors they will now be denied access to any part of the Yongbyon complex. North Korea threatened earlier this month to resume deriving material useable for weapons from spent nuclear fuel.

The South's Minister Yu says diplomacy may produce some movement on the stalemate soon.

He says the US government is expected to make a decision on the terrorism list in the near future, and that discussions on a verification protocol are still under way.

Yu pointed out that even though international inspectors have been denied access to Yongbyon, they are still being housed in North Korean dormitories near the complex and not expelled from the country. He says a compromise deal would focus narrowly on the North's plutonium-related nuclear activities.

He says other issues, particularly that of a suspected North Korean uranium enrichment program, will be handled later on, as it is impossible to deal with every issue at once.

Washington's chief envoy on the nuclear issue, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, met with senior North Korean officials last week in Pyongyang and is still conferring with his superiors in Washington. The Bush adminstration has not made any substantial details of the latest negotiations public.

Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, speculates Washington and Pyongyang may soon reach a verification compromise.

"And that gets very technical and very detailed as far as environmental samples, and when and where they can take those samples, access to individual scientists and engineers for interviews, and records, and which kind of sites are available," Pinkston said. "And the technical people will have to work that out, and I'm sure there's been some lengthy discussions about that."

Pinkston believes it makes sense to delay issues unrelated to North Korea's plutonium programs like the one at Yongbyon. He says other matters can be handled after next month's U.S. presidential election.

"Wrapping up this second phase, disablement, would be a positive step - and we could move toward the dismantlement phase with the new administration in the U.S.," he said.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test explosion in 2006. Several international media reports have reported possible suspicious activity at the site of that test, suggesting Pyongyang may be planning a followup.

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