''It looks as though the North Koreans are preparing to shut downthe facility. That's our sense of what we're seeing,'' the officialtold Reuters without giving details yesterday.
But another official said, ''It's too soon to tell whether theyare shutting it down.'' ''My understanding is that some of what we haveseen in recent weeks is maintenance and the like, but we'll have abetter idea after ElBaradei visits this week,'' the second officialsaid, referring to Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the UN nuclear watchdog.
Both officials, who have access to US intelligence on North Korea,spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of theinformation. The United States frequently has spy satellites trained onNorth Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test in October.
A shutdown of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant by mid-April isthe centerpiece of the Feb 13 accord reached in six-party talksgrouping North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States andhost China.
ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency,yesterday said that inspecting and closing facilities behind NorthKorea's nuclear weapons program would be complex as the two sides seekto rebuild severed ties.
He was in Beijing en route to North Korea, where he is to negotiate the return of agency inspectors as part of the accord.
Shutdown Possible By April 13
US officials said they believed theshutdown of the Yongbyon complex could be accomplished by April 13 asthe agreement stipulated.
''It can be done in a short period of time (and) we're reasonably confident they will take that step,'' one official said.
The State Department said the chief US negotiator on North Korea,Chris Hill, will be in Beijing on Wednesday for meetings aimed atworking out details of the agreement.
Hill, US assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacificaffairs, is expected to attend working group sessions onnonproliferation and security and will also be at another round ofsix-party talks on North Korea set for March 19.
''This is good, positive that these working groups are meeting forthe first time. It fulfills one of the requirements of the Beijingagreement. Certainly we will be looking for all parties to live up totheir agreements reached and take the specific requests required ofthem,'' State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
The Feb 13 deal offered North Korea aid and improved security inreturn for first steps to dismantling its atomic facilities within 60days. Last week, Hill attended a meeting in New York with North Koreanofficials on normalizing US-North Korean relations.
Casey said it was likely that Hill would meet his North Koreancounterpart Kim Kye-gwan before the March 19 meeting but a time had notyet been set.
During his travels, Hill may also meet ElBaradei, Casey said.
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