| Nuclear scientist Sig Hecker speaks to the press at Beijing airport after returning from North Korea. (AFP)
Beijing, Jan. 10 (Reuters): A US delegation has visited North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, the first time outsiders have been allowed into the plant since UN inspectors were expelled a year ago.
The US suspects North Korea may have resumed reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods from Yongbyon into plutonium for use in nuclear weapons, and analysts said the trip to the facility may shed light on the North’s nuclear capabilities.
“We did go to Yongbyon,” delegation head John Lewis, who is a professor emeritus at Stanford University, said in Beijing upon arrival from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
Lewis and others on the unofficial delegation said they did not wish to comment on what they saw or discussed with officials until they had briefed the US government.
The five-day visit by a group that also included two US Senate aides, a nuclear specialist and a former state department envoy for North Korea, came as the US and its allies tried to reconvene talks with North Korea to end its suspected nuclear arms programme. Frank Jannuzi, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide, characterised the trip as “a good visit, a productive visit”. But it was not yet clear if, or how, it would benefit the process of talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions, analysts said.
China hosted an inconclusive round of six-party talks on the nuclear issue in August with the US, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia. In Tokyo a leading Japanese daily reported today that China has offered North Korea $50 million in aid if it takes part in the talks.
The Asahi Shimbun quoted diplomatic sources in Washington as saying the offer was made by Wu Bangguo, chairman of China's parliament, during a visit to North Korea in October.
They added the help was likely to take the form of financial aid rather than fuel oil or food, but no details were given.
Piao Jianyi, a North Korea expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Yongbyon visit probably indicated how far along North Korea’s nuclear programmes had developed. “It has a definite significance... I think, after more than a year, North Korea’s nuclear development may have made some definite progress,” he said.
A western diplomat who closely follows the issue said it was interesting the authorities allowed a visit to Yongbyon, but not necessarily significant or helpful to the process.
“We are still at a very difficult step and that kind of visit wouldn’t necessarily change the fundamentals of the equation,” the diplomat added.
This week, North Korea offered to freeze its nuclear activities, a move that has raised hopes for a second round of talks, which analysts say may happen in February.
China’s special envoy for Korean nuclear issues and another top Asian affairs diplomat will travel to Washington early next week for consultations on the next round of talks. US secretary of state Colin Powell told Japan’s NHK today he wanted the next round of talks to produce concrete results.
The US said in October 2002 North Korea had admitted to a clandestine uranium enrichment programme to build nuclear weapons, which US officials say violated a 1994 agreement by the north to freeze its nuclear programme.
North Korea subsequently said it would restart its reactor at Yongbyon to generate electricity, disabled surveillance cameras at the complex and expelled UN inspectors, leading to US fears that it had resumed a nuclear arms effort. Lewis said the delegation met military, foreign ministry, economic and science officials. Jannuzi said the touchy subjects of human rights and Japanese abducted by North Korea were among a spectrum of issues discussed.