As many as three US groups may visit North Korea next week and some may tour the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which Washington believes may be part of Pyongyang's suspected nuclear arms program, souces said on Friday.
One group consists of two US Senate Foreign Relations Committee aides and the other of private citizens, including a former top US nuclear scientist, a former US special envoy for North Korea and a Stanford University scholar.
The visit, first disclosed by USA Today, was confirmed by a US official as well as a South Korean foreign ministry official in Seoul, who said some of the visitors would tour Yongbyon, where Washington suspects North Korea may have resumed reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium.
A visit to Yongbyon would mark the first time outsiders have been allowed in the nuclear complex since UN inspectors were expelled a year ago at the start of the latest US-North Korean confrontation over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
The US in October, 2002 said North Korea had admitted to a clandestine uranium enrichment program to build nuclear weapons, which US officials say violated a 1994 agreement by Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear program.
North Korea subsequently said it would restart its reactor at Yongbyon to generate electricity, disabled surveillance cameras at the complex and expelled UN inspectors, leading to US fears that it had resumed a nuclear arms effort there.
It is unclear why the groups are being permitted into North Korea, which is in the middle of a standoff with the US and several of its neighbors over whether to resume six-way talks on abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
The six parties -- China, the two Koreas, the US, Japan and Russia -- met in August but no new talks have been set. The US has demanded a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear weapons programs and has offered unspecified security guarantees in return.
"I would not want to put too much meaning to the visit," said the South Korean official. "It is difficult to use the visit as a gauge of the next round of six-party talks."
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Washington did not oppose the visits but stressed those involved were not going on behalf of the administration.
A spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said two committee aides -- Keith Luse of its Republican staff and Frank Jannuzi of the Democratic staff -- planned to leave for North Korea yesterday and may visit Yongbyon. He said the two had visited before to assess human rights and other matters.
People familiar with the second group said its members include Charles "Jack" Pritchard, the State Department's former special envoy to North Korea who now works at the Brookings Institution think tank, Sig Hecker, director from 1985 to 1997 of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and John Wilson Lewis, a professor emeritus at Stanford University.
An aide to Lewis said he was currently in China and was planning a trip to North Korea.
A US official who asked not to be named said there may be some changes in the dates of the trips and the names of those going.