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US Says North Korea 'Getting Closer' to Restarting Nuclear Plant

The United States said Friday North Korea is continuing to take steps to reverse the shutdown of its Yongbyon reactor complex. The State Department urged North Korea to remain in compliance with the six-party accord, under which is to scrap its nuclear program in exchange for aid and diplomatic benefits. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here acknowledge that North Korea is taking tangible actions to back up its threat to restart the Yongbyon reactor, but they say the facility is not yet back in operation and are urging Pyongyang to desist.

North Korea said early this month it was taking steps to restart the reactor - source of the plutonium for its small nuclear weapons stockpile - because the United States has failed to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

President Bush has informed Congress of his intention to "de-list" North Korea but the administration says removal is dependent on Pyongyang's provision of a verification plan for the declaration of nuclear assets it made in June.

North Korea Friday said it no longer wants or expects to be taken off the list and is making what were termed "thorough preparations" to restore its nuclear facilities.

The United States, which has monitors at Yongbyon, said two weeks ago North Korea was observed moving equipment out of storage at Yongbyon. Briefing reporters Friday, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the activity has moved to a second stage, of actual preparations to reverse the reactor shutdown.

"They continue to move to the right - getting closer and closer to that point where they are to the point of operationalizing Yongbyon again," McCormack said. "They haven't gotten to that point, and we would urge them not to get to that point. As always, throughout this process they have a choice - they can go down the pathway of having a different kind of relationship with the rest of the world, receiving the benefits of that relationship, or they can keep themselves isolated [and] move the process backwards."

North Korea's increasingly tough line in recent weeks coincides with press reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may have suffered a stroke.

Spokesman McCormack said he would "not discount" the reports of the North Korean leader's illness, but would not elaborate.

He also said while the United States has been in recent diplomatic contact with North Korea, he said it has yet to see "any outputs" from Pyongyang for the past month or so - suggesting an absence of decision-making.

Some analysts have suggested North Korea may have decided to stall the six-party process until a new U.S. administration takes office next January.

McCormack said he would not presume to offer Pyongyang political advice, but that the likelihood is that the benefits North Korea would accrue from disarming would not be different or better under the next U.S. president.

North Korea shut down and was in the process of disabling the reactor complex in exchange for energy aid from the other parties.

Submitting a verification plan was to open the way to the next phase of the accord, which would include among other things the lifting of terrorism-related sanctions and a phased normalization of relations with the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to discuss the stalled process next week at the United Nations with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China, the chair of the six-party talks.