U.S. intelligence shows N. Korea progress

Korea Herald
3/1/2007

North Korea appears to have started complying with a recent nuclear disarmament agreement, but U.S. intelligence officials are telling skeptical lawmakers they will continue to watch the country’s actions closely.

Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Tuesday that officials had seen North Korea begin inspections of its main nuclear reactor, which the North pledged to shut down and seal in return for an initial load of fuel oil. More aid would follow once North Korean technicians had disabled its nuclear programs.

“There are parts of this nuclear program that we have to pay a lot of attention to, to see if we have the kind of disclosure and the inspection capabilities that we’re looking for,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He also said North Korea is technically capable of building a long-range missile that can hit the United States despite a test failure last year.

He said North Korea has probably learned from the failure of its Taepodong-2 missile during a test in July, and made changes to its other missiles.

“I believe they have the technical capability, as we saw by the Taepodong, but they have not successfully tested it yet,” he said.

Asked how long before North Korea would have a missile capable of reaching the United States, he said, “I would probably estimate it’s not a matter of years.”

The Bush administration was likely to face more tough questions on Wednesday, when the chief U.S. negotiator at North Korean disarmament talks, Christopher Hill, was to appear at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Many in Washington are deeply skeptical of the Feb. 13 agreement. Conservatives say it rewards North Korea for bad behavior.

In Seoul, a senior U.S. security official expressed “cautious optimism” that Pyongyang will take steps to disable its nuclear facilities and is coordinating with Seoul for progress.

“I think we have a good first start, and I think we are approaching with energy and with cautious optimism,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Jack Crouch told Yonhap News Agency.

Amid lingering doubt that Pyongyang may backtrack, he said there are now “big differences – we have a coordinated policy with the five members of the six-party talks.”

Crouch was here to meet Seoul’s chief nuclear negotiator Chun Young-woo to coordinate on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament after a stop in Tokyo.

Foreign Minister Song Min-soon also met him before heading to the United States to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on Thursday.

A flurry of diplomatic efforts are underway to start carrying out the six-party agreement reached in Beijing on Feb. 13, in which North Korea pledged to shut down and eventually dismantle its nuclear facilities.

Japan said yesterday it will hold talks with North Korea next week in Hanoi, hoping for progress in a row over abductions that has led Tokyo to shun a six-nation nuclear deal with Pyongyang.

“After coordinating with North Korea, the first working-level talks for the normalisation of the Japan-North Korea ties will be held on March 7 and 8 in Hanoi,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a press conference.

A prepatory meeting will be held in the Vietnamese capital on March 6, he added.

Japan is expected to use the forum to push for answers on the abduction of its citizens by North Korea, which says the issue is closed.

North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan is expected to arrive in the U.S. this week to meet his U.S. counterpart Christopher Hill in New York and discuss normalizing diplomatic relations. Their meeting may discuss removing the North from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, according to Crouch.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is also set to visit the region next week, stopping in Japan, South Korea and China.

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