December 6, 2007 / 2:15 AM / 10 years ago

North Korea disablement faces enrichment riddle

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea must come clean on any efforts to enrich uranium with Pakistani help, a U.S. envoy said on Thursday, while South Korea suggested the North may miss a year-end deadline for disclosing nuclear activities.

<p>North Korean soldiers look south at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, about 55 km (34 miles) north of Seoul, December 5, 2007. North Korea may miss the year-end deadline under an international disarmament deal to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons program, South Korea's foreign minister indicated on Thursday. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak</p>

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill visited North Korea this week to urge it to “disable” its key Yongbyon nuclear complex and disclose all atomic activities by the end of December as part of a disablement deal.

Hill has said the North is moving to cripple the reactor and other units at Yongbyon so it will be difficult to restart. But disagreement remains over what should appear in the tell-all declaration of nuclear activities Pyongyang has promised.

Before meeting Chinese diplomats to brief them on his Pyongyang trip, Hill indicated that one of the points of dispute was North Korea’s efforts to enrich uranium, a way of making nuclear material that does not rely on reactors.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions with them about uranium enrichment,” Hill told reporters, adding that the United States had “very good evidence” that North Korea had bought enrichment technology and had received assistance from Pakistan.

“We need them (North Korea) to step up and show some trust in us and in the process,” he added.

Under the February 13 agreement reached at six-party talks with the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, North Korea agreed to “disable” Yongbyon and make the nuclear declaration in exchange for heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid.

But Pyongyang may now miss the year-end deadline for the disarmament steps, South Korea’s foreign minister indicated.

“We are aiming for the initial end of the year deadline, but we may need to be a little more flexible,” Song Min-soon said in Seoul, according to a spokesman for his ministry.

U.S. claims that Pyongyang pursued enrichment despite a 1994 disarmament pact were one of the developments that led North Korea to pull out of that pact in 2002 and restart Yongbyon, which can make plutonium usable for nuclear weapons.

It tested a plutonium-based bomb in October last year.

The Bush administration, also distracted by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has played down claims about how advanced North Korea was in enrichment. But Hill suggested that even if those efforts were fruitless or dormant, North Korea had to tell all.

“We want to be completely sure they don’t have any ongoing program,” he said. “Being clear about what’s happened is also a means for us to build a future relationship.”

Metallurgist A.Q. Khan, admired in Pakistan as “father” of its atomic bomb, was arrested in 2004 for black market sales of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

North Korea has denied to Hill obtaining gas centrifuges from Pakistan used to purify the type of uranium usable for reactor fuel or weapons, an expert on the dispute, Selig Harrison of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, told Reuters.

“The key to resolving the stalemate in the promising negotiations with North Korea lies in Islamabad,” he said in an email.

Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Seoul, editing by Nick Macfie

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