North Korea nuclear reversal off to good start - US

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SEOUL, Nov 6 (Reuters) North Korea's first ever steps to roll back a nuclear arms programme launched about 40 years ago are going well, a US official said on Tuesday after visiting the North's plutonium-producing atomic complex.

Destitute North Korea struck a deal with regional powers last month to disable its Soviet-era nuclear complex in exchange for aid and an end to its international ostracism.

''I think we are off to a good start,'' US State Department official Sung Kim said at Incheon airport near Seoul, according to a pool report. Kim was with a team of US nuclear specialists who arrived in North Korea last week.

He said there have been steps to reverse the operations at all three of the key facilities -- the North's ageing reactor, a plant that produces nuclear fuel and another that turns spent fuel in arms-grade plutonium.

The deal calls for North Korea to disable the three plants by the end of the year, provide a list of its nuclear arms activity, account for all its fissile material and answer U.S.

suspicions of having a clandestine programme to enrich uranium for weapons.

As part of the deal it reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, the energy-starved North will receive 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid.

The United States will also move toward taking North Korea off a US terrorism blacklist.

US officials estimate the North has about 50 kg (110 lb) of plutonium. Proliferation experts say that is enough for six to eight bombs.

A US State Department spokesman in Washington said disablement had started on Monday. North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, shut the three facilities in July.

The chief US envoy to the nuclear talks said he wants disablement to lead to abandonment of an arms programme considered by many as one of Asia's greatest security threats.

Experts say that though the disablement steps are reversible, they would prevent North Korea from going back to producing any more plutonium for about a year.

The North set up its nuclear research facility at Yongbyon, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Pyongyang, in the mid-1960s with help from its Cold War communist allies. It began building its own reactor there in the early 1980s, experts said.

The North has frozen its facilities but never taken significant steps to reverse its rudimentary nuclear arms programme, which has become its diplomatic mainstay for wringing concessions from the outside world.

REUTERS SS HS1440

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