North Korea invites US to inspect main nuclear plant

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The Independent Online

North Korea has invited a group of US experts to inspect its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon next week in what may be an attempt to convince Washington that it possesses nuclear weapons.

North Korea has invited a group of US experts to inspect its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon next week in what may be an attempt to convince Washington that it possesses nuclear weapons.

The motives for the surprise move by the secretive Communist regime are hard to divine. But speculation is that Pyongyang is trying to strengthen its negotiating hand before talks with its neighbours and the US aimed at freezing North Korea's nuclear programme.

The invitation might be intended to show that the North's claims of a nuclear capability are genuine, while signalling Pyongyang's readiness to permit regular inspections if a deal is reached to dismantle weapons in exchange for economic aid and some form of non-aggression pact with Washington.

According to South Korean officials yesterday, the US team would include Sig Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos nuclear research centre, where the first atom bomb was produced. Two Senate aides who have previously visited North Korea and a former State Department negotiator with the North have also been invited.

Pyongyang appears to be following a twin path towards developing nuclear weapons: a uranium enrichment scheme that was disclosed to US officials last year, and the reactivation of a plutonium extraction programme that was frozen by a 1994 deal with the US.

The 1994 deal fell apart in late 2002, and subsequently North Korea expelled United Nations weapons inspectors and resumed the reprocessing of spent fuel rods at the Yongbyon complex. The CIA estimates that the North may have one or two nuclear devices dating from before 1994, and fears North Korea may have added half a dozen more in the past 12 months, by extracting plutonium from reprocessed fuel rods.

The US is also putting out new feelers to Iran, another member of President George Bush's "axis of evil", in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Bam, where American rescue teams are helping relief efforts.

Mr Bush insists the US response was purely humanitarian, and this week again demanded that Iran give up efforts to build a nuclear bomb, submit to rigorous UN inspections and abandon its support for terrorist groups.

But the administration is debating whether to send a high-level mission to the country - ostensibly to discuss the earthquake aftermath, but which inevitably would be seen as another feeler towards improved relations.

The delegation would be led by Elizabeth Dole, a former president of the US Red Cross and now a Republican senator for North Carolina, and might include a member of the Bush family. This would be the most high-profile contact since the two countries severed diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Meanwhile, Libya has warned that if the US does not quickly lift unilateral sanctions following Tripoli's agreement to give up its nuclear programme, it might not make the remaining agreed payments to families of the victims of the Lockerbie disaster in 1988.

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