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N. Korea halts nuclear dismantling

The move is in response to U.S. delays in removing it from a terrorism list, the Foreign Ministry says.

August 27, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Less than two months after North Korea blew up the cooling tower of its main nuclear plant in a televised spectacle, the government announced Tuesday that it had suspended the dismantling of its nuclear program.

The Foreign Ministry said the move was in response to U.S. delays in removing it from a list of "terror-sponsoring" states. The ministry said that the suspension began Aug. 14 and that the regime would next consider restoring some of what had been dismantled already at the main nuclear compound in Yongbyon.

President Bush asked Congress on June 27 to remove North Korea from the terrorism list, but the administration also has said that the measure wouldn't go through until the U.S. could verify North Korea's 60-page inventory of its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made that point anew on Tuesday. "We have made very clear . . . that we were awaiting a verification mechanism that could assure the accuracy of the statements that North Korea made in its declaration," she said.

"We actually are in discussions with the North Koreans, and I think we'll just see where we come out in a few weeks," she said, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where she was meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

North Korea said in a statement distributed through its official news agency that the U.S. insistence on verification infringed on its sovereignty and was a "brigandish demand of unilaterally disarming."

"The U.S. is gravely mistaken if it thinks it can make a house search in the DPRK [North Korea] as it pleases just as it did in Iraq," the statement said.

This latest development is a blow to the Bush administration's hopes of claiming for the president's legacy the removal of the North Korean nuclear threat. The spectacular demolition of the cooling tower, which was witnessed June 28 by a State Department official and a CNN crew, raised hope that the long-running tussle over dismantling the nuclear program might be coming to a conclusion.

But longtime North Korea watchers expressed no surprise over the suspension, which appears to be straight out of a familiar playbook of abrupt changes of opinion, brinkmanship and threats.

"Nobody thought this was going to be easy," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst with the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "What is going on here is one of two possibilities: Either they have not been bargaining in good faith and have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons, or they are just trying to negotiate the best bargain they can."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, together have outlasted every American president since Harry Truman. Many analysts believe that the communist government is reluctant to carry through on a deal with a lame-duck administration, especially one with which relations have been so testy.

"They are not in any rush to expedite the process," Pinkston said.

North Korea also has a long history of creating crises to grab attention in the midst of other major events, and the Democratic National Convention is a prime occasion. The regime also might have been irritated by the visit to Seoul by Chinese President Hu Jintao, which concluded Tuesday.

North Korea was placed on the State Department list of terrorism sponsors after the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airplane over the Indian Ocean. The designation has stuck because of continuing concerns over weapons proliferation and North Korea's failure to release Japanese citizens abducted years ago.

After Bush's first directive to remove North Korea from the terrorism list, Congress had 45 days to review his decision. The earliest day that the removal could have become effective was Aug. 11. But the United States last week said it would not go forward until an inspection mechanism is set up to verify the denuclearization.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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