The Bush administration says it is not involved in plans for a North Korea visit by a U.S. delegation next week including Senate staff members and a prominent nuclear scientist. The visit could include the first visit by foreigners to North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility in more than a year.
The State Department says the administration is neither opposing nor facilitating the private mission, which will reportedly yield the first visit by outsiders to the Yongbyon complex since North Korea expelled international nuclear monitors in December 2002.
The newspaper USA Today said North Korean authorities have given the go-ahead for the visit by the group, which includes key Senate staffers and the former head of the U.S. government's Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, Sig Hecker.
The mission would also involve Jack Pritchard, who until his retirement last year was the Bush administration's diplomatic "point man" for contacts with North Korea.
But State Department spokesman Adam Ereli says the group is not acting on behalf of the administration, which he said is focussed on efforts to resume six-party talks on ending the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
"What we think is important, from the U.S. government point of view, is to engage in diplomatic efforts to get six-party talks reconvened, and to talk seriously about dismantling North Korea's program. That's where our focus is," he said. "That's where we're going to be putting our effort. That's where our partners are putting their efforts, and that's what we want to see happen."
North Korea's reasons for inviting the private U.S. team at this juncture are unclear. Officials say it could be a way for Pyongyang to prove that it has nuclear weapons as a way of bolstering a hard line negotiating stance, or alternately an effort to ease tensions by showing it would be open to inspections if a deal is reached in the Chinese-sponsored talks.
North Korea shut down the Yongbyon complex under the 1994 "Agreed Framework" nuclear deal with the United States.
But amid the political confrontation with Washington that erupted in 2002, Pyongyang said it reopened the facility and reprocessed thousands of reactor fuel rods there, providing enough plutonium to build several nuclear weapons.
A State Department official said members of the group going to North Korea are in frequent contact with the administration, and would likely be debriefed after the mission for any clues they might have gained about activity at Yongbyon.
China said in late December that North Korea had agreed in principle on another round of six-party negotiations early this year, presumably this month.
At the talks, United States has proposed giving North Korea multi-lateral security guarantees in exchange for the dismantling of its weapons program, but the process has stalled over the sequencing of such an arrangement.