Wednesday, October 1, 2008

SEOUL | The chief U.S. nuclear negotiator with North Korea was preparing for a rare trip Wednesday to the isolated communist nation to try to resolve the sticking point that has derailed a disarmament pact.

Christopher R. Hill said his goal was to persuade his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, to agree to Washington’s demand for a verification system to account for the North’s nuclear arsenal. But he acknowledged that it would be a difficult task.

The North has rejected the U.S. requests on verification and accused Washington of not living up to its end of the deal and removing North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. It recently reversed the process of dismantling its nuclear facilities.

“We are in a very difficult, very tough phase of negotiations,” Mr. Hill told reporters Tuesday night after meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sook, to discuss ways to persuade the North to return to the disarmament process.

“What they have been doing obviously goes counter to the spirits of what we’ve trying to accomplish because all of the disablement - shutdown and disablement - was for the purpose of abandonment” of its nuclear program, Mr. Hill said.

Mr. Hill’s trip to the capital, Pyongyang, comes amid reports that autocratic North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had a stroke in August, prompting concern that his prolonged illness could destabilize the Korean Peninsula. North Korea denies that Mr. Kim, 66, is ill.

Mr. Kim’s disappearance from the public eye coincided with an about-face on the 2007 nuclear deal painstakingly negotiated among six countries - the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

North Korea alarmed the world in 2006 by testing a nuclear device and a series of missiles, including one capable of reaching as far as Alaska. It then agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid and other concessions.

The regime began disabling its nuclear-processing plant in Yongbyon in November and blew up a cooling tower in June in a dramatic display of its determination to carry out the process.

Just steps away from completing the second phase of the three-part process, Pyongyang abruptly reversed course in mid-August and stopped disabling the plant.

After confirming that it had begun restoring the nuclear-reprocessing plant and testing an engine ignition, the regime last week ordered U.N. nuclear inspectors to leave the country and said it planned to restart the plant. Experts say it could be up and running within months.

At issue is Washington’s request that the North agree to a verification system to account for its nuclear arsenal as a condition for removing North Korea from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors.

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