North ups the ante once more

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North ups the ante once more

Two North Korean engineers entered the nuclear reactor facility in Yeongbyeon, a senior official in Seoul said yesterday, apparently to conduct preliminary inspections and maintenance work to prepare it for reactivation.

The report came just after officials in Seoul and at the International Atomic Energy Agency said Tuesday that the North has also disabled surveillance equipment at the nuclear fuel fabrication plant and the unused fuel rod storage facility at the site. That announcement came as the next step in a North Korean progression that started with the disruption of surveillance at the reactor itself, at the storage pond where used nuclear fuel is stored and then at a laboratory at the site where the North's past efforts to extract plutonium from used fuel are believed to have been conducted. All surveillance equipment at the site has now apparently been disabled.

Officials here said it would take at least two months before the North could load new fuel and restart the reactor even if the maintenance and repairs to the plant, which has sat idle for the past eight years, go smoothly. Two IAEA inspectors, the official said, have not been blocked from moving around the site; he added that the IAEA may try to dispatch a third inspector to help in efforts to keep track of North Korean activities.

While not attempting to hide its alarm, the government is reportedly planning some high-visibility steps to start a dialogue with the North despite more tough rhetoric from Washington over the Christmas holiday. Officials here continue to insist that there is no rift between Seoul and Washington in their strategic views about the North's nuclear program, but another official said he was frustrated at the lack of maneuvering room Seoul has in trying to mediate between the United States and the North.

President-elect Roh Moo-hyun met with academic national security experts Tuesday to discuss how to coax Pyeongyang away from its nuclear program while trying to persuade Washington to change its position that it will hold no further talks with the North until it honors its past promises to halt its nuclear program. His spokesman, Lee Nak-yon, said yesterday that U.S. officials and members of Mr. Roh's team will exchange visits next month to discuss North Korea developments. Yoo Jay-kun, a legislator and Mr. Roh's foreign affairs advisor, is said to be the likely leader of the Korean team; he met with Mr. Roh's national security brain trust today. After the meeting, one of the researchers on the team said Seoul must come up with concrete suggestions to back up its general calls for resolving the nuclear issue through dialogue.

Mr. Roh was reportedly invited to a meeting of the Blue House's national security team planned for today, but an adviser will probably fill in for him, the Millennium Democratic Party said.

by Oh Young-hwan, Park Shin-hong

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