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N. Korea 'to allow' nuke inspections

Construction began on the first light water reactor last month
Construction began on the first light water reactor last month

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TOKYO, Japan -- North Korea has pledged to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said.

Koizumi said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il vowed to observe its side of a nuclear deal related to its suspected weapons programs during a landmark meeting between the two this week.

However, there was no mention of any agreement to accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspections on a joint statement released after Tuesday's summit.

Pyongyang has been under pressure to live up to a 1994 agreement with the United States, under which North Korea agreed to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program in exchange for the construction of light water power reactors by a U.S.-led international consortium.

Already several years behind schedule, construction of the first of two light water reactors began last month with a concrete pouring ceremony at Kumho on North Korea's east coast.

Plutonium stockpile

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There were fears that Pyongyang could use plutonium from its older reactors to develop nuclear weapons. The new light water reactors do not use plutonium.

The IAEA has demanded inspections of the North's nuclear facilities to determine how much weapons grade plutonium it had stockpiled before its suspected weapons program was frozen.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe the North might have stored enough plutonium to make one or two atomic bombs before the 1994 deal froze the program -- a claim the North denies.

The $4.6 billion reactor deal was struck under the Clinton administration, but U.S. President George W. Bush still allows funding despite his administration's concerns about the secretive communist nation's weapons program.

A key part of the deal was that Pyongyang scrap its older reactors -- from which weapons-grade plutonium could be extracted -- and allow inspectors in to verify this has occurred.

'Evil axis' barb

In January, Bush labeled the North part of an "axis of evil," accusing it of developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. negotiator on North Korea, Jack Pritchard, has said his presence at the Kumho ceremony shows the U.S. commitment to the power project, but added that the North's failure to allow inspections could undermine its success.

The White House has remained firm on the issue, arguing that it is necessary for Pyongyang to allow the inspections before critical work continues on the light water reactor.

But with North Korea making a series of diplomatic moves to defrost ties with Japan, the United States and South Korea, observers say Pyongyang may be opening up and may be more willing to make concessions in return for international aid and assistance.

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