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U.S., North Korea near nuke deal, officials say

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  • NEW: U.S. closely watching missile launch site after signs of activity, officials say
  • Deal near on nuclear program, senior State Department officials say
  • Under plan, North Korea would dismantle reactor, account for plutonium
  • North Korea also would acknowledge concerns about activities, officials say
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States is close to finalizing a deal with North Korea over its nuclear program, senior State Department officials tell CNN.

The focus needs to be on North Korea's plutonium program, diplomat Christopher Hill says.

In the deal being discussed, North Korea would finish disabling its nuclear reactor and provide a full accounting of its plutonium stockpile, the officials said.

In an addendum to the main agreement, North Korea also would "acknowledge" concerns about its proliferation and uranium enrichment activities and agree to continue cooperation with a verification process to ensure no further activities, the officials said.

Meanwhile, U.S. military intelligence is closely watching a North Korean missile launch site after seeing signs of activity in recent days, according to two U.S. military officials.

The activity has prompted concerns Pyongyang is planning a new round of ballistic missile tests of either medium or longer range missiles, they said.

In recent weeks, U.S. satellite imagery of the site at Sinori, North Korea, northwest of Pyongyang, has shown movement of military personnel, vehicles and some equipment to the site that had not been seen there on a regular basis, the officials said.

North Korean military personnel also have engaged in training on the site, they said, adding the activity is in its early stages and it's not yet possible to determine what the North Koreans are doing.

Negotiations over the nuclear agreement stalled for months when North Korea balked at publicly admitting to a highly enriched uranium program and to providing Syria with nuclear technology.

In softening its demand for a full declaration from North Korea, the United States concluded it is more important to get North Korea to surrender its weapons-grade plutonium than risk the deal fall apart all together, officials said.

The officials said it is less important to have North Korea "confess" to its past activities than it is to find a formula under which the parties have an understanding of North Korea's nuclear program.

In exchange, they said, North Korea would be removed from the United States' list of state sponsors of terrorism and would have sanctions removed under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

"We have found a formulation which is probably good enough" to address North Korea's past behavior, one official said.

On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that verifying North Korea's claims is more important than the actual document.

"You can't verify overnight some of these complicated programs that the North Koreans have been engaged in," she told reporters. "But we have to be absolutely certain that we've got means to do it.

"We are not yet at a point where we can make a judgment as to whether or not the North Koreans have met their obligations, and we are therefore not at a point at which the United States can make a judgment as to whether or not it is time to exercise our obligations," she said following a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

One State Department official said, "We have found a formulation which is probably good enough" to address North Korea's past behavior.

North Korea has allowed U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, to visit a missile factory believed to have been used for uranium enrichment in an effort to prove there were no "ongoing" enrichment activities.

Hill told CNN it is still important to resolve North Korea's uranium and proliferation activities, but North Korea's plutonium is the more immediate threat because it can be used to make nuclear weapons.

"North Korea still has difficulty admitting things publicly," Hill said. "We still have to deal with the proliferation issue and the HEU [highly enriched uranium] program, but it is very important to get a plutonium declaration that is not only accurate but is completely verifiable."

The United States also wants the deal to address Japan's questions about North Korea's alleged abductions of more than a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, officials said.

Officials said Rice has signed off on the elements of a deal. But they made clear nothing is final unless the whole package is agreed to by the other parties that have been involved in the six-party talks: Russia, South Korea, China and Japan.

They added that while progress has been made, more negotiations are needed and the deal could change slightly. The United States hopes to wrap up negotiations in the next few weeks, they said.

If the deal goes through, it would pave the way to move to the third part of the Six Party Agreement, which requires North Korea to permanently dismantle its nuclear reactor and destroy its plutonium stockpile. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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