1. U.S. Team Headed to Pyongyang in Search of 'Significant Progress'
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For the first time since the United States eased demands on North Korea for nuclear disclosure, a U.S. delegation is headed to the communist state to try to verify the extent of its nuclear program.
Led by Sung Kim, a senior State Department expert on Korea, the interagency delegation arrived here late Monday and was scheduled to drive north to Pyongyang on Tuesday across the heavily fortified border.
"Everything is subject to verification," Kim told reporters after arriving here. He said that he hoped the visit would bring "significant progress" and that he expected detailed discussion of a much-delayed declaration North Korea has promised about its nuclear program.
That declaration, under a disclosure-for-aid deal negotiated last fall and due last Dec. 31, was to have been a "complete and correct" listing of the North's nuclear activities, from the manufacture of plutonium to details of uranium enrichment and involvement in a Syrian facility bombed last year by Israel.
Both plutonium and highly enriched uranium can be used in building nuclear weapons.
But North Korea has consistently refused to talk publicly about uranium enrichment and nuclear proliferation.
To salvage the negotiations, the United States said this month that it would be satisfied if the North would "acknowledge" evidence and concern about these matters, without a precise public admission.
In the meantime, the North -- in return for the lifting of sanctions -- would finish dismantling its principal nuclear plant and account for all the plutonium it has produced.
North Korea has said it has produced about 66 pounds of plutonium, but the U.S. government estimates it has made more. Both sides agree that significant parts of the Yongbyon reactor have already been disabled.
The delegation heading to Pyongyang on Tuesday plans to stay in North Korea for several days, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said.
Over the weekend, President Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said U.S. concessions to the North could unlock delicate negotiations.
Bush has been criticized by some Republicans for yielding too much to the Stalinist government of Kim Jong Il.
"Why don't we just wait and see what they say before people go out there and start giving their opinions about whether this is a good deal or a bad deal?" Bush said Saturday at Camp David, Md., where he met with Lee.
The recently elected South Korean president added that talks with North Korea require "persistent patience."
"It's difficult to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs, but it is not impossible," Lee said.
2. North Korea Produced 30 kg of Plutonium - Newspaper
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North Korea told the United States in December it has produced a total of around 30 kg of plutonium, about 20 kg less than what the United States estimates, a Japanese newspaper reported on Monday.
The daily Tokyo Shimbun reported that North Korea's chief envoy to the talks, Kim Kye-gwan, told his U.S. counterpart, Christopher Hill in North Korea last December the North had used about 18 kg of its plutonium stockpile for nuclear development and around 6 kg for its first and only underground nuclear test in October 2006.
The newspaper, citing a source involved in the six-way talks on North Korea's nuclear programme for the report, did not elaborate on what the remaining 6 kgs was used for.
The United States, which estimates that communist North Korea has produced more than 50 kg of plutonium, has demanded Pyongyang submit a "complete and correct" declaration of its past and present nuclear activities.
North Korea has said it has accounted for its past and current activities as required. But the United States says that the North has not discussed any transfer of nuclear technology to other countries, notably Syria, nor has it accounted for its suspected pursuit of uranium enrichment.
Uranium enrichment could provide North Korea with a second way to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons in addition to its plutonium-based programme.
Under the second phase of the six-party deal, once North Korea has produced its nuclear declaration, the United States is expected to relieve it of sanctions under the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list and Trading With the Enemy Act.
In the third phase, North Korea is expected to dismantle its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and abandon all nuclear weapons in exchange for further economic and diplomatic benefits.
Six-party talks, aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions, involve the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia, have stalled pending North Korea's full accounting of nuclear activities.
President George W. Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, meeting at Camp David at the weekend, warned that even after North Korea makes a full declaration, the information would still have to be verified.
They appeared to back away from a reported proposal under which, according to sources familiar with the matter, Washington would list its concerns about the nuclear programs which Pyongyang would then acknowledge.
Some U.S. conservatives have criticized that idea as giving in to North Korea and aimed at getting a deal before Bush leaves office in early 2009.
A U.S. team will have talks in Pyongyang on Tuesday and Wednesday on how to verify any declaration North Korea may make about its nuclear programmes, the U.S. State Department said last week.
CIA officials will tell Congress on Thursday that North Korea had been helping Syria build a plutonium-based nuclear reactor, a U.S. official said, a disclosure that could touch off new resistance to the administration's plan to ease sanctions on Pyongyang.
The CIA officials will tell lawmakers that they believe the reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons but was destroyed before it could do so, the U.S. official said, apparently referring to a suspicious installation in Syria that was bombed last year by Israeli warplanes.
The CIA officials also will say that though U.S. officials have had concerns for years about ties between North Korea and Syria, it was not until last year that new intelligence convinced them that the suspicious facility under construction in a remote area of Syria was a nuclear reactor, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing plans for the briefing.
By holding closed, classified briefings for members of several congressional committees, the administration will break a long silence on North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation and on what it knows about last year's destruction of the Syrian facility. Nonetheless, it has been widely assumed for months that many in the administration considered the site a nuclear installation.
It was not clear Tuesday how recently North Korea may have been aiding Syria. But disclosure of the relationship to the committees is likely to bring criticism from conservative lawmakers who already believe that U.S. overtures to North Korea have offered the government in Pyongyang too many benefits without assurances that it will disclose the extent of its nuclear arms effort or ultimately surrender its weapons.
U.S. officials provided little explanation of why they want to brief lawmakers on the North Korean-Syrian links after declining to do so for months.
A senior Senate aide said the timing appears driven by a Bush administration desire to apprise committee members of the latest intelligence on the reactor before releasing some of the information.
"I have this strong impression the reason they want to brief the committee is they want to say something publicly," said the aide, who discussed contacts with the administration only on condition of anonymity.
The administration has briefed senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, a senior Senate aide said. But other lawmakers have remained in the dark. The administration has been under pressure to extend briefings to a larger circle of lawmakers.
The administration is planning to ease sanctions on North Korea as part of talks aimed at removing Pyongyang's nuclear weapons. The six nations involved in the talks, which also include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, have been negotiating since 2003.
After a breakthrough last year in which North Korea agreed to shut down its only functioning nuclear production facility, it was rewarded with fuel oil and the release of frozen bank funds. But talks stalled after the Bush administration demanded that Pyongyang provide a full description of its past nuclear activities by a December 2007 deadline.
Shifting course, U.S. officials said two weeks ago that it would be sufficient for the North Koreans to acknowledge U.S. concerns about their nuclear activities. In return, administration officials would remove North Korea from the stigmatizing U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism and Pyongyang would no longer be subject to U.S. trade sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a 1917 law.
The administration shift appeared to give ground to North Korea in the negotiations, spurring fierce criticism from U.S. conservatives and debate over the broader plan to ease sanctions as a step toward dismantling Pyongyang's weapons programs.
But under the latest approach, U.S. officials will describe to the North Koreans at least some of their conclusions about Pyongyang's links with Syria. Some analysts speculated that U.S. officials may wish to avoid sharing intelligence with North Korea before they have briefed most members of Congress.
Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank, said the congressional briefings were simply a step the administration needed to take to move forward. "This is a box-checking exercise," she said.
Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said, "The administration routinely keeps appropriate members of Congress informed of national security and intelligence matters." He declined to comment on specific sessions, however.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, complained in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in October that the administration "has thrown an unprecedented veil of secrecy around the Israeli airstrike," and that based on information he had been given "it is critical for every member of Congress to be briefed on this incident, and as soon as possible."
Some administration officials are believed to be unhappy with the latest developments in talks with North Korea. But several analysts were skeptical of speculation that the briefing might have been initiated by internal opponents who hope to set off an outcry that would scuttle any deal with Pyongyang.
"You'll have some outcry, but I doubt there are enough people on Capitol Hill even paying attention to oppose it," said Gordon Flake, who follows the issue as executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and is a critic of such a pact.
He speculated that lawmakers would be reluctant to stand in the way of the deal, because that would risk criticism that they had blocked a hopeful avenue of progress on a top national security problem.
Another senior Senate aide said that although the disclosure might bring complaints, Congress would not turn against the negotiations with North Korea. The critics would not be able to come up with any better alternative, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing senators' views.
1. Russians to Shut Reactor That Produces Bomb Fuel
C. J. Chivers
New York Times
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Russiaï¿½s state nuclear energy corporation is expected to switch off a nuclear reactor on Sunday in a closed city in Siberia. The reactor has been producing weapons-grade plutonium for four decades, a senior American nonproliferation official said Saturday.
The reactor, ADE-4, is one of two in the city of Seversk that have been extraneous remnants of the Soviet Unionï¿½s nuclear weapons program since the cold war. For 15 years, they produced plutonium that the Kremlin neither needed nor wanted.
Opened in secret in the 1960s to feed the arms race, the reactors have continued to operate because of their peculiar construction as defense-industry suppliers.
The Defense Ministry stopped purchasing plutonium in 1993, rendering the reactorsï¿½ primary purpose obsolete. But the reactors could not be closed, and plutonium was still produced, because the reactors were also a primary source of heat and power to the bitterly cold regions along the Tomsk River, where no equivalent utility sources had been built.
Russian energy officials said switching off the bomb-fuel reactors, which are powered by uranium and produce plutonium as a byproduct, would have meant cutting off a large fraction of the utilities for the cities of Seversk and Tomsk. The cities have a combined population of about 600,000.
ï¿½That is obviously critical when you are facing temperatures of 40 below,ï¿½ said William H. Tobey, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency in the Department of Energy that coordinates nonproliferation programs.
Under a cooperative program between the Russians and the Americans, the United States has provided $285 million to underwrite the refurbishment of a coal plant to provide an alternate utility service to the region, Mr. Tobey said.
The plant has been refurbished enough to switch off the first reactor this week. It is expected to be completed and in full service by June, allowing the second reactor, ADE-5, to be turned off as well.
Although an agreement on the program was reached in 1997 and work on the coal plant began in 2005, Russia notified the United States of its plans to turn off the reactor only on Friday, two American officials said. It had been expected to close later this year.
Officials at Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear energy corporation, could not be reached Saturday.
Mr. Tobey declined to say how much plutonium the reactors had produced, saying that Russia had opposed the public release of data related to its nuclear programs.
But closing the reactors, he said, would prevent ï¿½tons of plutoniumï¿½ from being produced, he said, enough to make hundreds of nuclear weapons.
Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand have also donated money, about $30 million, to replace Russiaï¿½s remaining plutonium-producing reactors with fossil-fuel plants, Mr. Tobey said.
The countryï¿½s only other plutonium-producing reactor, in Zheleznogorsk, is scheduled to be switched off and replaced with a fossil-fuel plant in 2010.
1. US Relaxes Bid to Halt Atom Enrichment Tech Sales
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The United States has given up a bid to ban uranium-enrichment technology sales to non-nuclear states, instead proposing criteria for such transactions to win over critics in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, diplomats say.
But Canada and possibly some others in the 45-nation NSG may not be satisfied with parts of the new approach, the diplomats, familiar with the matter but asking for anonymity due to political sensitivities, told Reuters.
Washington's shift was the subject of a two-day consultative NSG meeting that began in Vienna on Monday. A decision on the U.S. move -- which must be made by consensus -- would be left to the group's next plenary session in Berlin on May 19-23. The NSG seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation by curbing transfers of technology of possible use in building atom bombs. But enriched uranium is also the basis of peaceful nuclear energy, for which demand in developing nations is rocketing.
Diplomats said leading world uranium producer Canada spearheaded pressure on Washington to relent on a full ban in enrichment-related sales, which has been renewed annually by G8 industrialised powers at U.S. behest since 2004 amid mushrooming concern over Iran's secretive uranium enrichment campaign.
"The United States was for years the only holdout in the NSG against sales criteria. This new language shows some U.S. flexibility on criteria," said one Western diplomat.
At the Vienna meeting, diplomats said, U.S. officials were to present a new "criteria-based approach", a stricter version of an earlier compromise proposal backed by most NSG states.
The new formula would proscribe sensitive nuclear transfers to states that have not joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, do not permit intrusive, snap U.N. nuclear inspections and have not met International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards commitments.
They would also require that any equipment sold be immune to duplication -- so-called "black box technology" operated only by supplier personnel in the recipient state to minimise risk of diversions to military ends.
But Canada, diplomats said, may balk at the black-box provision because it wants to exercise a right under the NPT to develop its own nuclear fuel technology and possibly sell it to countries who fulfil the other anti-proliferation criteria.
Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and South Korea could have concerns similar to Canada, some diplomats said.
Brazil and Argentina, who have formed a commission with the blessing of the IAEA to develop nuclear power jointly, may also object to the clause on intrusive U.N. inspections since neither allow them, according to diplomats.
Most countries now using atomic fuel buy it rather than make their own. Just six -- the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, the first four of which have nuclear weapons -- enrich uranium and sell it abroad.
Nations seeking enrichment capacity see sales curbs as a possible manoeuvre to dominate profitable markets, or want to be immune to cutoffs in supply amid international tensions fanned by Iran's nuclear activity, which has drawn U.N. sanctions.
"There are very understandable political and commercial issues in the picture here," said a European diplomat.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association think tank in Washington, said the U.S. proposal would effectively bar enrichment-related sales to India, with which the United States struck a controversial nuclear cooperation deal in 2005.
India never joined the NPT and launched its nuclear arsenal with tests in the 1970s, spurring the creation of the NSG.
The U.S.-India accord remains in limbo because of leftist opposition in India. Among requirements for it to take force is an NSG waiver. Some NSG members may want to attach conditions likely to be unpalatable to New Delhi, diplomats say.
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