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Halt in Work Seen at N. Korea Nuclear Site

The apparent cessation of activity is not being viewed as an indication of any shift in the regime's intentions, a U.S. official says.

September 11, 2003|Paul Richter and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — North Korea has apparently halted activity at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, where it has been holding thousands of nuclear fuel rods that can be reprocessed to make bombs, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

The official stressed that work at the site could be quickly restarted. The stoppage could signal a pause in the regime's efforts to build a nuclear arsenal, analysts said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have reported activity at the complex several times this year. North Korean officials have claimed that they have reprocessed enough material to make six bombs, although U.S. officials have said they had no proof.

The disclosure comes two weeks after diplomats from China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States met in Beijing to discuss the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

The diplomats are expected to meet again in the fall to discuss a deal in which North Korea would give up its nuclear programs in return for aid and other benefits.

"Various sensors and imagery and other things we have don't show activity," the U.S. official said. "There's not much indication that anything is going on there at the moment."

Previously, U.S. intelligence had detected limited activity at the site, though the CIA had never concluded that the facility had been reactivated. "We never said it was operating," the official noted.

The official stressed that the apparent decline in activity was not being interpreted by the U.S. government as an indication of any shift in North Korean intentions.

"I wouldn't read too much into it," he said.

"They can start and stop fairly easily," he added, noting that the facility could be restarted on short notice.

"If there's any significant activity going on, it would be very hard to conceal," the official said. Asked whether the North Koreans could be operating the facility without detection, he said, "No."

Jon B. Wolfsthal, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the government's disclosure was consistent with some other signs that activity at Yongbyon was halted.

He said satellite photographs circulating on the Internet showed that the cooling tower at the facility was no longer giving off steam and thus might not be running. He said some media reports have suggested that the North Koreans had been having trouble running the nuclear reactor and fuel-reprocessing plant.

A halt could mean that the North Koreans have reprocessed some rods but, because of technical problems, have had to restrict their amount of bomb-making material, he said. Or, he said, it could mean that "of their own volition, or through Chinese pressure, they're signaling that they're not pursuing the program as fast as they could

A congressional source said information on North Korea provided by the Bush administration was viewed with suspicion among many on Capitol Hill.

"If the administration came up and told me now that Yongbyon is shut down, I wouldn't necessarily believe it," the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The administration has a huge ulterior motive to try to say they're making progress in North Korea."

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