North Korea may be preparing to shut down nuclear reactor: reports

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Intelligence officials reported increased activity Tuesday around North Korea’s main nuclear reactor, indicating the country may be preparing to uphold its agreement to shut down the plant.

North Korea missed last Saturday’s deadline for shuttering the reactor because of a dispute over $25 million in North Korean deposits frozen in a bank blacklisted by Washington. The funds were allegedly linked to money laundering and counterfeiting.

The owner of the bank in the Chinese territory of Macau, Stanley Au, insisted the money had been unblocked. He noted however that North Korea had made no withdrawals from his Banco Delta Asia “because they cannot transfer the money out.”

“There are no banks accepting the so-called black money,” Au told The Associated Press. “The only thing they can do at the moment is to take the money in bank notes out of the bank.”

North Korea promised the U.S. and four other nations in February to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for energy aid and political concessions.

South Korea said it will discuss food shipments to the North, despite earlier reports that Seoul was considering halting the aid in an apparent move to ratchet up pressure on the North, which has requested 400,000 tons of rice.

“The issue of food aid will be discussed” at meetings beginning Wednesday in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, Deputy Unification Minister Kim Jung-tae told reporters.

South Korea periodically sends rice and fertilizer to the impoverished North, but often faces criticism from conservatives here and abroad for being too lenient on its northern neighbor.

North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor remained in operation Tuesday, but there was a high possibility that movement of cars and people at the site recorded in satellite photos could be linked to a shutdown, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unnamed intelligence official. The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper carried a similar report.

An official at the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, told The Associated Press they were “following and analyzing some peculiar movements” around the reactor in North Korea, without elaborating. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.

Yonhap news agency cited another unnamed intelligence official as saying that South Korea and the United States have been closely monitoring some movements since a month ago.

“The intensity of these activities has increased from about a week or two ago,” the official was quoted as saying. “There are activities other than cars and people moving busily.”

A North Korean decision to shut down the reactor would be its first move toward stopping its nuclear program since 2002, when the latest nuclear standoff began. The North is believed to have produced as many as a dozen atomic bombs since then, and conducted an underground nuclear test in October.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon spoke by telephone Tuesday with his U.S. counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, and the two “strongly expressed expectations that North Korea will soon implement disarmament measures,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Song and Rice “reaffirmed that the door to resolving the (bank) issue is clearly open to North Korea,” the statement said.

China said Tuesday that it hoped the bank dispute would be resolved and progress made on disarming the North.

North Korea “still needs confirmation on the relevant questions” concerning the financial issue, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regular briefing. “There are still some specifics the relevant countries are concerned about that need to be further clarified and confirmed.” He did not give details.

Banco Delta Asia said Monday it had filed a legal challenge to Washington’s decision to cut it off from the U.S. financial system. The bank said it told the Treasury Department that its accusations of abetting North Korea’s alleged illicit activities “lacked specific facts” and were motivated by politics.