South Korea's foreign ministry says a group including U.S. congressional foreign policy aides and a top nuclear scientist, will visit North Korea next week. The delegation has been invited by the Stalinist state to tour a controversial nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
If the trip does occur it will be the first time outsiders have been allowed to inspect North Korea's main nuclear complex since the communist government expelled United Nations inspectors a year ago.
North Korea, in October, said it had begun reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods at the Yongbyon complex, which, according to experts, would yield enough plutonium to make several bombs.
South Korean officials say the U.S. delegation will visit North Korea for four days beginning January 6. It reportedly will include about 10 people, including congressional aides, a former director of the U.S. government nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, a China expert from Stanford University and a former U.S. State Department official who previously negotiated with North Korea.
The White House has given its consent for the trip, according to the USA Today newspaper. Two months ago, the Bush administration blocked a trip to North Korea planned by a Congressional delegation.
A U.S. embassy official in Seoul says he has no information about the visit and cannot comment on the news reports about it.
The trip comes amid efforts to convene a second round of multi-lateral talks about North Korea's nuclear weapons development. A first round of talks involving both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia ended inconclusively.
The Bush administration says an agreement on eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons must be complete, irreversible and verifiable.
New talks have been anticipated for more than a month, but the process appears stalled. Diplomats say differences remain over how a settlement, involving an end to the North Korean nuclear program in exchange for multi-lateral security guarantees, would be sequenced.
Tensions escalated between Washington and Pyongyang 15 months ago when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted to a secret nuclear arms development program in violation of international agreements.