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World News

North Korean nuclear disabling to begin

BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. technicians are likely to begin dismantling by the end of this week North Korea’s nuclear complex, which makes weapons-grade plutonium, the chief U.S. nuclear envoy said on Thursday.

Satellite image from DigitalGlobe taken on January 5, 2006 shows Yongbyon nuclear reactor in North Korea. U.S. technicians are likely to begin dismantling by the end of this week North Korea's nuclear complex, which makes weapons-grade plutonium, the chief U.S. nuclear envoy said on Thursday. REUTERS/DigitalGlobe

The team of U.S. experts arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday to oversee disabling the secretive state’s Soviet-era nuclear reactor, a plant that makes nuclear fuel and another that turns spent fuel into plutonium.

Christopher Hill, the top U.S. envoy to six-way talks to end Pyongyang’s nuclear arms programme, said the U.S. team had “a specific list of measures” and would arrive at the nuclear complex to begin the dismantling process on Friday or Saturday.

“The first actual physical acts of disablement will probably be at the end of the week,” Hill told reporters. “We are satisfied that we have an overall plan that will be effective and that will provide the disablement that we need.”

The moves follow a breakthrough February deal under which North Korea, which tested a nuclear device last year in defiance of international warnings, is to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear plant and admit U.N. nuclear monitors.

Hill met his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, on Wednesday to discuss steps to disable Yongbyon.

Following lengthy six-party talks in Beijing involving North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China, Pyongyang agreed that by the end of 2007 it would have disabled its main nuclear facilities.

This will put it out of the plutonium-production business for about a year, proliferation experts said. But the steps are short of outright destruction.

“Disabling is just part of the game. What we want to do is move beyond disabling to dismantling and then to the abandoning of all the separated plutonium,” Hill told reporters after arriving in South Korea from China later on Thursday.

North Korea also agreed to fully disclose all its atomic activities by the end of the year, including how much plutonium it has produced. Hill has said the process of making such a declaration should begin within the next two weeks.

In exchange, the impoverished North will receive 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid. The United States will also move towards taking North Korea off a U.S. terrorism blacklist.

Hill said he anticipated teams would be at Yongbyon for “the next couple of months”.

The process has not been without critics.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that a “disablement” of the facility would not be the same as the “dismantlement”.

“Let’s see real verification, and leave trust until later,” he wrote, arguing that the U.S. and rest of the world should remain suspicious of North Korea.

With additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Seoul

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