Nuclear arms topic of visit to N. Korea

U.S. experts, scientist scheduled to tour North's main facility at Yongbyon

Trip was arranged privately

White House says effort is no substitute for talks being arranged by China

January 03, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - North Korea has invited American security experts and a nuclear weapons scientist for a visit next week that analysts said could provide the first close-up indication of whether the North is actively producing fuel for nuclear weapons.

The privately arranged trip will include a retired U.S. diplomat who has negotiated with the North Koreans, the former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a Stanford University specialist in Asian security.

The trip comes amid halting diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear threat in exchange for security assurances from the United States and economic inducements from the United States, South Korea and Japan.

The Bush administration distanced itself from the delegation and played down the trip's significance, saying it would not be a substitute for six-nation talks being arranged by China. But it did not try to block the mission.

"It should be clearly understood that groups or individuals acting outside the six-party talks would not be acting on behalf of, or with the approval of, the administration," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

The planned visit was first disclosed by USA Today, which reported that the delegation had been invited to North Korea's main nuclear facility at Yongbyon. No outsiders have been allowed into the facility since North Korea expelled United Nations inspectors in late 2002.

One U.S. official said the North Koreans might back off from letting the delegation into Yongbyon now that the trip has gained worldwide attention.

But if the visit is allowed to proceed, it could shed additional light on the extent of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which remains difficult for U.S. intelligence agencies to assess.

"Who knows how much they'll be able to see," said Wendy Sherman, who negotiated with Pyongyang as a top State Department official in the Clinton administration. She added that the North Koreans "don't tend to play all their cards" at one time.

"I will be surprised if they use this particular trip to show they have a bomb," Sherman said.

But the visitors could be shown enough to assess Pyongyang's claims that it has been reprocessing spent fuel rods into nuclear weapons fuel, Sherman said. The North Koreans could also try to assure the group that nuclear plant procedures are safe, she said.

Robert L. Gallucci, who negotiated a 1994 agreement that was intended to freeze North Korea's nuclear program, said the visit to Yongbyon could prove to be merely "cosmetic" unless the delegation's nuclear weapons expert, Siegfried Hecker, is allowed inside the spent-fuel storage area to learn how much had been removed for reprocessing. Hecker, former director of Los Alamos, is now a senior fellow at the laboratory.

The visit was arranged by John W. Lewis, a retired Stanford University professor who is still affiliated with the university's Center for International Security and Cooperation, which he co-founded.

A third member of the group is Charles L. Pritchard of the Brookings Institution, who until August was one of the State Department's key contacts with North Korea.

The trip coincides with another visit planned by two staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Keith Luse, who works for the panel's Republican chairman, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, and Frank Jannuzi, who works for the committee's senior Democrat, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

A Lugar spokesman said the Senate staffers' trip was intended to look at how food aid was distributed and at North Korea's human rights practices. But analysts speculated that the pair, who have visited North Korea before, would meet with Lewis' group.

Any significant findings could easily reach the top levels of the Bush administration; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a former Stanford provost, retains close ties to the university.

North Korea has periodically reached out to influential figures outside the administration, including Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations. Its efforts were seen as an attempt to persuade the White House to launch direct bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang, an approach the Bush administration has rejected.

Since pulling out of the Nonproliferation Treaty in 2002, effectively scrapping the 1994 agreement, North Korea has asserted that it is intent on becoming a declared nuclear weapons state. Last year it told U.S. officials that it had a separate uranium enrichment program for producing nuclear-weapons fuel.

It claims to have reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods, enough for half a dozen nuclear bombs, in addition to the one or two it is believed to have. The North has also threatened to export nuclear weapons or nuclear material, conduct tests to prove that it has a nuclear device, and test a long-range missile.

Analysts are unsure how many of these threats are real. But Gallucci said that in the absence of inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, "they could be literally building nuclear weapons."

The Bush administration has tried to forge a common approach with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia that requires a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

But the administration has gone part way to meeting Pyongyang's concerns, agreeing to provide written assurances that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea, which President Bush has labeled part of an "axis of evil."

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