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. NKorea on brink of restarting nuclear programme
SEOUL, Sept 25 (AFP) Sep 25, 2008
North Korea was Thursday on the brink of restarting the nuclear weapons programme it shut down 14 months ago under a landmark disarmament deal, as negotiating partners struggled to save the pact.

The communist state has told the UN atomic watchdog it will start work to resume plutonium reprocessing at its Yongbyon complex, possibly within a week. It has barred International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from the reprocessing plant.

Analysts in Seoul say the North is practising brinkmanship in its bitter dispute with the United States over nuclear inspections, but is not necessarily bluffing.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the North's latest moves "will only deepen their isolation," but insisted that the tortuous six-nation nuclear disarmament talks which began in 2003 are not dead.

"We have been through ups and downs in this process before but I think the important thing is this is a six-party process," she said.

Rice and chief US negotiator Christopher Hill have been holding intensive talks with their counterparts from South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

South Korea -- which was outraged and alarmed when the North tested an atomic weapon in October 2006 -- expressed deep concern.

"We have serious concerns about the North Korean move yesterday," said foreign ministry spokesman Moon Tae-Young.

"We are in close consultations with other participants in the six-party talks and calmly responding to make sure that North Korea should not aggravate the situation any further."

Under a deal reached in February 2007, North Korea in July that year shut down Yongbyon under IAEA supervision.

Four months later, it began disabling the plants. In June this year it handed over details of its plutonium-based nuclear programme, which was thought to have produced enough material for about six bombs before the shutdown.

In return, it was promised one million tonnes of fuel oil or equivalent aid and its removal from a US terrorism blacklist which blocks some foreign aid.

But last month Pyongyang announced it had halted disablement in protest at Washington's refusal to drop it from the blacklist. The US says the North must first agree procedures for strict verification of its nuclear disclosures.

The standoff coincides with reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke around mid-August.

Analysts could not say whether the developments are linked, given the lack of information about the inner workings of the secretive regime.

"Tension is expected to grow due to North Korea's brinkmanship, which is now at its highest level," said Kim Yong-Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

"North Korea is ratcheting up the stakes ahead of elections in the US in an attempt to earn concessions. It is challenging Washington to make concessions or face a fresh nuclear crisis," Kim told AFP.

"This is not mere bluff."

The six-party deal has hit serious snags before, notably over a US-inspired freeze of the North's accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia (BDA).

"The latest dispute will be very, very difficult to resolve, much more difficult than BDA," said Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Analysts say the next indication of the North's intentions would be the removal of IAEA seals from spent reactor fuel rods, for reprocessing into plutonium. Seals and camera surveillance equipment have already been removed from the reprocessing plant.

While it would take considerable time to restart the reactor, Pinkston said the North could extract enough plutonium from fuel rods to make at least one more bomb.

Such reprocessing work could take just months, or even less time.

Pinkston said the North appeared to believe the US "has moved the goalposts" in its interpretation of vaguely worded six-nation agreements.

These would appear to commit the US to remove the North from its blacklist following disablement and the nuclear declaration.

"I don't expect any surprising last-minute breakthrough which would restore the (suspension)," Pinkston told AFP. "The six-party process is in a long deep freeze, if not collapsing."

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