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US Sending Team to North Korea to Oversee Reactor Disabling


The Bush administration says U.S. experts will go to North Korea next week to oversee the disabling of that country's reactor complex under the six-party nuclear agreement announced by China Wednesday. Pyongyang agreed to disable its weapons facilities and disclose all its nuclear holdings in exchange for energy aid and diplomatic benefits. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

North Korea shut down the Yongbyon reactor complex in July in return for the first installment of energy aid. But officials here say the commitment to disable, and eventually dismantle it, marks the biggest advance yet in years of nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang.

In a telephone conference call from New York with reporters, the chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks said U.S. experts will be heavily involved in the disabling process and that an American advance team will go there early next week.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill says while various nuclear facilities are covered in the agreement, the U.S. focus is on the Yongbyon reactor, where it is believed that North Korea has produced 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium over the past several years.

"That's where the weapons-grade plutonium is produced. And you've got to keep your eye on the ball here. And the ball here is the plutonium, to get that shut down and disabled so our 50-kilo plutonium problem doesn't become a 100-kilo plutonium problem. That's why we have really focused on Yongbyon. That's where we think we can help keep Americans safer," said Hill.

In addition to disabling nuclear facilities by year's end, Wednesday's agreement also commits North Korea to provide a "complete and correct" declaration of all its nuclear programs.

Assistant Secretary Hill says while it is not specified in the statement, North Korea will have to account for the uranium enrichment effort U.S. officials believe it secretly began several years ago, and which led to the collapse of the Clinton administration's 1994 nuclear freeze accord with Pyongyang.

North Korea is getting, in return for its cooperation, one million tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid and various diplomatic benefits including steps toward normalized relations with both the United States and Japan.

Wednesday's Beijing statement says the United States will fulfill commitments made to North Korea for action to remove that country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that made Pyongyang the target of severe economic sanctions.

Assistant Secretary Hill gave no time frame for getting North Korea off the list, but said the Bush administration would begin consultations with Congress on the issue this week.

"This is important because it's in our interest to get countries off the terrorism list, because by definition countries that are on the terrorism list pose a threat. So when you take them off, it's because you believe you've diminished this threat. So we think it's in our interest to do this," he said.

U.S. officials do not believe North Korea has been involved in acts of international terrorism since the 1980s.

Hill said U.S. action on the issue will be in close consultation with Japan, which is still seeking a full explanation from North Korea of its admitted abduction of several Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.

Implementing the steps in the new agreement would clear the way for action next year on the final stage of the six-party process, which would include dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear sites and regional security arrangements.

Hill says it is too early to say if denuclearization means an end to North Korea's international isolation or broader changes for that government, but he said it is an essential first step.

"This does not mean to say that our concerns about this country will be over, or frankly this country's problems will be over," he said. "But I do believe if we can get North Korea to understand that it has a better future without nuclear weapons, I think that puts us in a better position to work with North Korea on other issues and to try to bring it into the family of nations."

The Beijing statement calls for an early ministerial level meeting of the six parties, which would be the first of its kind, and include a first-ever meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Nam-Sun.

Begun in 2003, the six-party process includes North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United Sates along with host China.