US team visits nuclear complex in North Korea

BEIJING: A US delegation has visited North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, the first time outsiders have been allowed into the plant since UN inspectors were expelled a year ago. 

The United States suspects North Korea may have resumed reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods from Yongbyon into plutonium for use in nuclear weapons, and analysts said the trip to the facility might shed light on the North's nuclear capabilities. 

“We did go to Yongbyon,” delegation head John Lewis, who is a professor emeritus at Stanford University, told reporters here on arrival from Pyongyang. 

Lewis and others on the unofficial delegation said they did not wish to comment on what they saw or discussed with officials until they had briefed the US government. 

The five-day visit by a group that also included two US Senate aides, a nuclear specialist and a former State Department envoy for North Korea, came as the United States and its allies tried to reconvene talks with North Korea to end its suspected nuclear arms programme. 

Frank Jannuzi, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide, characterised the trip as “a good visit, a productive visit.” 

But it was not yet clear if, or how, it would benefit the process of talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, analysts said. 

China hosted an inconclusive round of six-party talks on the nuclear issue in August with the United States, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia. 

In Tokyo, a daily reported yesterday that China had offered North Korea US$50mil (RM190mil) in aid if it took part in the talks. 

The Asahi Shimbun quoted diplomatic sources in Washington as saying the offer was made by Wu Bangguo, chairman of China's parliament, during a visit to North Korea in October. They added the help was likely to be financial aid rather than fuel oil or food. 

Piao Jianyi, a North Korea expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Yongbyon visit probably indicated how far along North Korea's nuclear programmes had developed. 

“It has a definite significance ... I think, after more than a year, North Korea's nuclear development may have made some definite progress.” 

A Western diplomat said it was interesting the authorities allowed a visit to Yongbyon, but not necessarily significant or helpful to the process. “We are still at a very difficult step and that kind of visit wouldn't necessarily change the fundamentals of the equation.”  

This week, North Korea offered to freeze its nuclear activities, a move that has raised hopes for a second round of talks, which analysts say may happen in February. 

China's special envoy for Korean nuclear issues and another top Asian affairs diplomat will travel to Washington early next week for consultations on the next round of talks. 

US Secretary of State Colin Powell told Japan's NHK yesterday he wanted the next round of talks to produce concrete results. – Reuters  

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