Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Asia this week amid signs of an imminent breakthrough in efforts to get North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons and bring a formal end to the Korean War.
After months of delay, the communist North appears set to hand over an accounting of its atomic activities by the end of the month, fulfilling a key step in the denuclearization process that will trigger an announcement by the Bush administration that it intends to lift sanctions against Pyongyang, U.S. officials said Friday.
Once that announcement is made, North Korea is expected to blow up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon reactor complex in what would be a dramatic, if only symbolic, televised signal of its intent to abandon nuclear arms, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic discussions.
All of these developments could happen within the next 10 days while Rice is on her Asian trip – she is visiting Japan, South Korea and China. But that timeline is regarded as a best-case scenario given the difficulty in predicting North Korean behavior due to the closed nature of its authoritarian regime. North Korea has in the past unexpectedly backed out of completing promised actions, confounding attempts to read the country's opaque leadership.
North Korea, which detonated a nuclear device in 2006, has stopped making plutonium and began disabling its nuclear facilities so they cannot be quickly restarted, but it still has a stockpile of radioactive material that experts believe is enough to make about a half-dozen bombs.
The talks have been stalled since Pyongyang failed to meet an earlier obligation to provide a declaration of its nuclear activities by the end of 2007.
Since then, the U.S. has been pushing hard for progress, hoping to reach a deal before President Bush leaves office.