- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

From combined dispatches

SEOUL — South Korea is investigating but has yet to confirm reports of fresh activity this month at North Korea’s main nuclear center at Yongbyon, Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun told reporters yesterday.

South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper quoted U.S. and South Korean officials as saying an American intelligence satellite detected fumes rising from a coal-fired boiler at the nuclear lab at Yongbyon. The fumes were observed on four days this month.

Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of the capital, Pyongyang, has a nuclear reactor and a plutonium reprocessing plant that are at the center of the year-long crisis over the secretive communist state’s attempts to build nuclear weapons.

“We are trying to confirm the activities, but at this stage I have no definitive information to disclose,” Mr. Jeong told reporters at his weekly news conference in Seoul.

State Department spokesman Steve Pike said he had not heard of new activity at the Yongbyon facility.

“It’s the first I’ve heard,” Mr. Pike said.

The latest report comes as the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia are trying to convene a second round of six-way talks on the nuclear dispute with North Korea to follow an inconclusive first round held in Beijing in August.

Mr. Jeong said that a nuclear crisis resolution proposal worked out last week by South Korea, the United States and Japan had been conveyed to North Korea by China.

But he said North Korea had not given a reply.

In a separate development, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) warned yesterday that up to 3.8 million North Koreans — 17 percent of the country’s population — could be deprived of critical international food aid by the end of winter.

As the first snows fall, 2.2 million are already missing WFP deliveries because of global cutbacks in donations, the agency said in a statement. The group expects to have delivered 300,000 tons of food aid, only 62 percent of what it originally requested, in 2003.

The WFP also criticized North Korea for banning the group’s activities in 43 out the country’s 206 counties. The WFP has a policy of not sending aid to areas its staff can’t enter.

“The restrictions imposed by the government continued to seriously impact operations and made some donors reluctant to provide food aid,” the WFP said.

Access is a key issue for the United States, which in February said it would give North Korea 40,000 tons in food aid and could offer 60,000 more depending in part on whether Pyongyang let donors track its distribution and provided access to all vulnerable groups in the country.

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