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Private U.S. team might visit N. Korea nuke site

Scientists say it's a possibility; U.S. pessimistic

From Sohn Jie-Ae

A satellite image of a nuclear reactor site in Yongbyon, North Korea.
A satellite image of a nuclear reactor site in Yongbyon, North Korea.

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North Korea
Nuclear weapons
Seoul (South Korea)

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- For the first time since North Korea expelled U.N. monitors in late 2002, the country might welcome a U.S. delegation next week to visit its Yongbyon nuclear facility, which the United States suspects is being used for nuclear weapons production.

But U.S. officials emphasized that the private delegation is not an official government mission, and said they do not have high hopes for the visit -- if it takes place at all.

"They are going to North Korea independent of the administration," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Friday.

"Our focus remains on diplomatic efforts to get six-party talks under way as a means of reaching the goal of a dismantlement of the North Korean program and a denuclearized Korean Peninsula."

Talks involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan, North and South Korea were held in Beijing in August, but no date was set for further talks.

A senior U.S. official said the United States does not expect further six-party talks in January.

The delegation includes Sig Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Professor John W. Lewis of Stanford University. A senior U.S. official said Jack Pritchard of the Brookings Institution and at least two congressional staffers will also be in the group.

Hecker told CNN that he and Lewis will leave for China this weekend, and it is a "possibility" they will be allowed into North Korea. Hecker said he received approval from the U.S. government to enter the Communist nation, and that Lewis, who "has a long-standing relationship with North Korea," arranged the trip.

There was no statement from North Korea on the trip.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry and a member of the delegation who asked not to be identified said the trip would take place January 6-10.

The delegation member said Lewis has been in quiet contact with North Korean officials, and that a trip was planned for several months ago but postponed for "logistical reasons."

Lewis asked to see the Yongbyon facility, and was given a strong indication that it would be possible, the source said.

"We may never get there, but it is a possibility," he said.

Hecker was invited, the source said. "We wanted to make sure someone was with us who knew what they were looking at."

Two senior U.S. officials expressed pessimism that the delegation would get to see much, but one said the U.S. government would be happy to "hear what they hear if they get special access or gain any insight."

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it learned of the planned trip from the United States. Seeing Yongbyon is "the purpose of their visit," the ministry said.

In October 2002, North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements, U.S. officials said.

President Bush has labeled North Korea part of the so-called "axis of evil," and demanded the government end its nuclear program immediately.

North Korea has indicated it would consider Bush's offer of written security guarantees to end tensions over its nuclear weapons development.

Pyongyang initially dismissed as "laughable" Bush's written pledge from five countries not to attack as long as North Korea scraps its nuclear weapons program. But in a sudden about-face, the country issued a new response.

"We are ready to consider Bush's remarks on the 'written assurances of non-aggression' if they are based on the intention to co-exist with (North Korea) and aimed to play a positive role in realizing the proposal for a package solution on the principle of simultaneous actions," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement reported by KCNA, the North Korean state news service.

"This stance is prompted by the expectation that (North Korea) and the U.S. can build confidence and lay a foundation of co-existence in the course of solving issues one after another on the principle of simultaneous actions," the latest statement said.

CNN Seoul Bureau chief Sohn Jie-Ae and White House correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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