U.S. Officials Tour NKorean Nuclear Site
Wednesday, September 12, 2007; 4:20 PM
SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea showed visiting U.S. officials everything they asked to see at the communist nation's main nuclear complex during an inspection Wednesday to determine how to disable the facility so it cannot produce more bombs, the State Department said.
The U.S. officials, joined by Chinese and Russian experts, were to continue their tour of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear site Thursday before returning Friday to the capital, Pyongyang, for discussions with North Korean officials, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.
The leader of the U.S. delegation, the State Department's top Korea expert, Sung Kim, told officials in Washington they "saw everything they had asked to see," McCormack said.
Allowing the visit is the latest positive step by North Korea toward disarming, creating enough goodwill between Washington and Pyongyang that the U.S. ambassador to South Korea suggested Wednesday that President Bush and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could hold a summit if North Korea totally disarms.
"I think that it might be possible before the end of President Bush's term if North Korea makes the right decisions and is ready to go all the way, not just disablement but full denuclearization," Ambassador Alexander Vershbow told a security forum in Seoul in comments confirmed by the U.S. Embassy.
Having such a meeting would mark the completion of a turnaround from Bush's previous hard-line stance toward North Korea, which he once branded part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Saddam-ruled Iraq. After North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in October, the U.S. softened its policy to facilitate progress on the North's disarmament.
In July, North Korea shut down its sole operating reactor at Yongbyon, which produced plutonium for bombs. The site includes facilities for reprocessing nuclear fuel from the reactor, and the country also has two long-dormant construction sites nearby for larger power-generating reactors.
The U.S. and North Korean nuclear envoys agreed in talks earlier this month in Geneva that North Korea's nuclear facilities would be disabled by year-end _ meaning they could not be easily restarted to continue making material for bombs.
To determine how that will be accomplished on the ground, the three-country team of officials traveled Wednesday to Yongbyon, 60 miles north of the capital.
Their findings will be reported to chief delegates at six-nation nuclear talks expected to convene later this month to finalize a timeline for further steps in North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
"The visits by these teams will provide some substantial input in terms of how you might go about disabling the reactor," McCormack said.
South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said the talks were expected around the middle of next week, and that negotiators would "draw up an action plan" for what to do next. He was speaking to local reporters and his office confirmed the remarks.
After years of delays on disarmament since the latest nuclear standoff began in 2002, North Korea has recently displayed an unprecedented willingness to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for political and economic concessions.
Vershbow told South Korea's YTN news channel that contacts between North Korea and other countries at the arms talks "give us at least a reasonable degree of confidence" that the disablement could be completed by the end of the year.
However, North Korea has yet to commit to giving up the nuclear bombs it is believed to have already built _ as many as a dozen or more.
Vershbow acknowledged that taking that further step would not be easy and said the U.S. would seek to address North Korea's weapons next year.
"The big challenge, actually getting rid of nuclear weapons and eliminating the nuclear programs, still lies ahead," he told YTN.