- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

BEIJING — A team of American academics and diplomats returned to Beijing yesterday after visiting North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, carrying a message from Pyongyang that China, South Korea and the United States still have promises to fulfill before denuclearization of the peninsula proceeds.

Officials in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, told the visitors that the dismantling of the nuclear reactor is almost complete, but the U.S. and other parties to the six-nation talks have yet to provide promised economic aid and fuel. North Korea also insists Washington remove it from the list of terrorism sponsors.

Siegfried S. Hecker, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Joel Wit, a former State Department official involved with Clinton administration diplomatic initiatives in 1994, along with W. Keith Luce, a staffer for Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, visited North Korea’s best-known nuclear facility Thursday.

The team’s return coincided with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s 66th birthday, one of the most celebrated holidays in the communist country.

The main Rodong Sinmun newspaper ran a lengthy editorial full of praise for Mr. Kim for strengthening the North’s “political and military force” — an apparent reference to the country’s first nuclear test in 2006, the Associated Press reported.

“We have to unite and unite again around the leadership, upholding the slogan ‘Let’s safeguard the revolutionary leadership led by Comrade Kim Jong-il with our lives!’ ” the paper said, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The unofficial trip by the Americans was sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and Ted Turner’s Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Mr. Wit, currently a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said “the level of cooperation [by the North] was better” than he had seen in over a decade.

The visitors were allowed to take photographs of the nuclear facility without any hindrance, and could hold friendly meetings with language students and museum guides.

The North Korean foreign ministry listed its reasons for the slowdown in dismantling the Yongybyon reactor and why the next step, declaring all nuclear programs, stands in limbo.

North Korea outlined to the visitors two sets of problems in the short term which prevent progress on two sets of long-term U.S. objectives.

Mr. Hecker said the process of dismantling was “nearly complete” on 10 of 12 necessary steps. Discharging fuel in the reactor began in December, but has not been completed. Almost 1,450 control rods had been removed thus far, but fuel for 8,000 rods remained before the 5 Megawatt reactor is truly dismantled.

The second problem, according to Pyongyang, involves delay by China and South Korea to supply energy infrastructure equipment in lieu of heavy fuel oil. China’s foreign ministry had no immediate response to North Korea’s complaints.

The other diplomatic snag is the regime’s insistence that Washington remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and drop trade sanctions.

This seems unlikely after top U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said Feb. 6 that only after North Korea completes the dismantlement and makes its declaration of all nuclear facilities will the U.S. be willing to change the policies.

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