- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

North Korea’s recent “moving of equipment” in its main nuclear complex is no reason to panic and is most likely a “negotiating ploy” to win removal from the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, current and former U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Pyongyang’s latest move does not amount to restarting the Yongbyon reactor or rebuilding the facility, whose key components have been disassembled under U.S. supervision, the officials said.

Still, the Bush administration is concerned enough about the lack of progress in trying to rid the North of its nuclear programs to dispatch its chief negotiator, Christopher Hill, to Beijing on Thursday in search of ways to get the process back on track.

“Our understanding is that the North Koreans are moving some equipment around that they had previously put into storage,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “To my knowledge, based on what we know from the folks on the ground, you don’t have an effort to reconstruct, re-integrate this equipment back into the Yongbyon facility.”

Asian media reports said North Korea began “reassembling” the reactor Monday, citing diplomatic sources in China, which hosts six-nation negotiations on ending the North’s nuclear programs. Pyongyang said last week that it would stop disabling the Soviet-era complex, about 10 months after it started the process as part of a six-party deal.

Even though there is still a U.S. technical team at Yongbyon, officials in Washington said it was not clear what exactly the North Koreans are doing and what their intentions are. “Is it part of a negotiating ploy?” one official asked rhetorically.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog that has monitors on the ground, said it had no information about the current situation.

The North Koreans said they took their latest step because of the U.S. failure to remove the country from the terrorism list within 45 days of President Bush’s announcement in June.

The two sides disagree on the terms of the deal. Pyongyang says the condition for “delisting” was a declaration of its nuclear programs it submitted just before Mr. Bush’s announcement. Washington insists, however, that the plan was to take the North off the list only after it agreed on a mechanism for verifying the content of the declaration, which has proved a difficult task.

“I would say it’s stuck in neutral at the moment, because you are not moving it forward,” Mr. McCormack said of the negotiating process. “They have not completed their obligations.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the United States will “most certainly live up to” its commitments when the North Koreans fulfill theirs.

Former U.S. officials and analysts agreed with the administration’s reading of the latest activities at Yongbyon, saying the North is trying to extract more concessions from Washington.

“It could take some time to restart Yongbyon, and that may not even be possible given the poor state of the facility before disablement began,” said Michael Green, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the North Koreans “are not in a position to separate plutonium from spent fuel,” which is an essential part of the nuclear cycle, because “key components have been disassembled.”

“The question is, what else North Korea has on its territory” outside Yongbyon, he said. “That’s why a more fulsome and accurate declaration is essential and verification is crucial.”

Jack Pritchard, a former State Department envoy for talks with North Korea, said the movement of equipment is probably meant to tell the Bush administration, “If you are interested in legacy, you better get moving on the terrorism list.”

“I don’t think you will see anyone panic over the North Koreans’ latest announcement,” he said. “The reality is that we are unlikely to see further progress and perhaps a bit of backsliding through the end of the Bush term.”

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