Fri, Oct 03, 2008 - Page 5 News List

US envoy extends trip in North Korea

ILL HEALTH The flurry of action in the nuclear standoff comes amid concerns about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who hasn’t been seen for a month

AP , SEOUL

Washington’s top nuclear envoy extended his stay in North Korea and held more talks yesterday with his counterpart in Pyongyang in a bid to break the latest impasse over the regime’s nuclear program, officials said.

US diplomat Christopher Hill went to Pyongyang on Wednesday to meet with North Korea’s Kim Kye-gwan at the nation’s invitation, US officials said. He stayed the night, and the two sides were holding more talks yesterday, officials said.

The long-awaited process of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program has been stalled since last year, when the North abandoned a disarmament-for-aid pact in mid-August, citing Washington’s refusal to remove it from its terrorism blacklist. The US maintains that the agreement required the North to submit to a thorough verification of its nuclear accounting — a demand the isolated regime rejected.

Pyongyang’s move to disregard the deal and to begin reassembling its nuclear reprocessing plant in Yongbyon comes amid concern over North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s health. Kim, 66, has not been seen in public in more than a month since reportedly suffering a stroke.

Hill, taking up Pyongyang’s invitation to discuss the impasse, was expected to propose ways to adjust the sequencing of steps North Korea must take as part of verification, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Wednesday in Washington.

A senior US official had said earlier that Hill would offer to let North Korea agree to a verification program — but submit details first to its Chinese allies. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

China in the past has served “as a repository for documents and information” and could do the same with the verification protocol, McCormack said. But he stressed that the North Koreans had to agree to the intrusive steps the US is demanding.

“The ball is in the North Koreans’ court,” he said. “They have to reverse their reversal and they have to approve a verification regime.”

The US official suggested that if the North agreed to a verification plan, Washington would provisionally remove North Korea from the list of terrorism sponsors.

US officials said they were not sure North Korea would agree to the idea or, if they did, whether any Pyongyang proposals presented to the Chinese would be acceptable to Washington.

Hill was to meet his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sook, upon returning to Seoul from Pyongyang to brief him about the trip before flying on to China, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said yesterday.

It was unclear exactly when Hill and his team, traveling by car, would return to South Korea. Hill was not expected to cross into the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas at 4pm yesterday as originally planned, US officials said in Seoul.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Hill would not return to Seoul yesterday as previously planned.

The flurry of discussions began amid signs that North Korea had stopped disabling its nuclear facilities as required by the pact and was restoring equipment. Last week, the regime ordered UN nuclear monitors to leave the Yongbyon facility.

In a further sign of Pyongyang’s defiance, there were indications that the North had begun restoring the site where it conducted its first nuclear test blast in October 2006, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.

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