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U.S., Pyongyang near deal on nukes

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From combined dispatches

SEOUL | North Korea and the United States are near a deal on verifying Pyongyang's claims about its nuclear program, which would prompt Washington to soon remove the state from its terrorism blacklist, South Korean media said Friday.

U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill, who went to Pyongyang last week to save a crumbling disarmament deal, reached a fresh verification proposal there that the Bush administration has finished reviewing, a South Korean news report quoted government sources as saying.

"North Korea's resumption of nuclear disablement and U.S. removal of North Korea from its state-terrorism sponsors list can all happen this month," the Chosun Ilbo newspaper quoted a government official familiar with the deal as saying.

The Associated Press reported in Washington that the Bush administration is nearing a decision to remove North Korea from a terrorism blacklist and may do so as early as Friday.

The move is aimed at keeping the disarmament-for-aid deal that North Korea struck with five regional powers from collapsing, which had seemed to be happening Thursday.

The South Korean daily Dong-a Ilbo cited diplomatic sources Friday as saying the secretive communist dictatorship has agreed to allow nuclear inspectors to make incremental checks at the Yongbyon facility, which produced its atomic bomb.

South Korean officials declined to confirm the reports but said the four non-Korean parties to the disarmament efforts - the U.S., Russia, China and Japan - are reviewing the results of Mr. Hill's visit to Pyongyang, which could lead to the end of the blacklisting of the North as supporting terrorism.

The disarmament deal had appeared to be in peril after Pyongyang, angry over the terrorism list, vowed last month to rebuild the aging nuclear plant and upped the ante Thursday by banning from Yongbyon an inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, based in Vienna, Austria.

The North had already banned IAEA inspectors from the reprocessing plant last month after demanding that they remove agency seals from the facility.

The IAEA said Thursday that its inspectors had been suddenly banned from the entire site and North Korean officials had told them that nuclear disablement work would cease. The IAEA said its small inspection team would remain on the site until told otherwise by North Korean authorities.

Tensions also rose elsewhere on the Korean Peninsula, with the North warning the South against sending naval ships into its waters and threatening warfare as it reportedly shifted an arsenal of missiles to a nearby island for more test launches.

The warning was issued hours after a South Korean newspaper reported that a U.S. spy satellite detected signs that the North had positioned about 10 missiles near the disputed sea border after test-firing two short-range missiles on Tuesday. The Chosun Ilbo report cited an unidentified South Korean official.

North Korea was to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for diplomatic concessions and energy aid equivalent to 1 million tons of oil under the deal with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

But the accord hit a snag in mid-August when the U.S. refused to remove North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism until the North accepts a plan for verifying a list of nuclear assets that the communist regime submitted to its negotiating partners.

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