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N. Korea makes nuclear moves

The regime begins taking equipment out of storage. The U.S. isn't certain how serious the effort is.

September 04, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — In a challenge to the Bush administration, North Korea is taking the first steps toward putting back together the nuclear reactor it was dismantling as part of a now-tattered agreement to denuclearize.

South Korean and U.S. officials reported Wednesday that in the preceding 48 hours, international monitors had observed the North Koreans taking mothballed equipment out of storage at Yongbyon, a nuclear compound 60 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital.

North Korea suspended the dismantling process Aug. 14, saying that the United States had broken a promise to remove it from a State Department list of terror-sponsoring nations. North Korean officials have also warned that they would restore some of what they had dismantled.

Restarting the reactor, which is the only source of plutonium for the communist regime's weapons program, would take at least a year and a considerable investment. U.S. officials said Wednesday that it was not clear how serious an effort North Korea was making to rebuild what it had dismantled.

"Our understanding is that the North Koreans are moving some equipment around that they had previously put into storage," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a briefing Wednesday.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said President Bush still hopes to remove North Korea from the terrorism list, but will not do so until inspectors are allowed to verify information provided as part of the deal to detail Pyongyang's nuclear inventory.

"Once North Korea simply agrees to a verification protocol, then the United States would take them off of our state sponsor of terrorism list," she said. "But we're not going to do it without it."

Still, this latest development is a setback to Bush's hopes of claiming as part of his legacy the removal of the nuclear threat from North Korea -- one of his original "axis of evil" nations, along with Iran and Iraq.

South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Sook, said this week that North Korea was probably just trying to extract further concessions.

"We need not overreact," said Kim, speaking at a seminar Monday in Seoul. "They are trying to pressure the United States and other parties to back down rather than engage. The North should realize that verification is a core element" of the deal, he said.

To old North Korea hands, the move is a typical tactic by Pyongyang, entirely predictable under the circumstances.

"It is par for the course. There is nothing terribly surprising about this," said Scott Snyder, a Washington-based expert at the Asia Foundation who wrote a book about North Korea's negotiating behavior. "They are betting that this is a legacy issue for President Bush and that he will back down."

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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