North Korea reassembling reactor

A North Korean envoy said the communist nation is reassembling its nuclear reactor and described reports that leader Kim Jong Il is sick as nonsense.

Work to restore the Yongbyon plant, the source of the regime's weapons-grade plutonium, has “in effect begun,” Hyun Hak Bong told reporters Friday, before holding talks on energy aid with South Korean officials in Panmunjom, a village in the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

Reports of Kim's ill health are “spread by those who wish the worst for our republic,” he added.

Intelligence that Kim suffered a stroke in the past month sparked concerns about potential instability in North Korea, as the U.S. and other nations try to persuade the regime to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. International disarmament talks stalled last month when North Korea stopped disabling Yongbyon to protest delays in being removed from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.

“At this point it's not entirely clear how seriously ill he is,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Thursday in London, where he is holding informal talks with NATO counterparts. The U.S. and “all of North Korea's neighbors are concerned about instability.”

The Bush administration says North Korea, which signed a disarmament accord with the U.S., Russia, Japan, China and South Korea last year, will stay on the terrorism blacklist until a mechanism is in place to verify the extent of its nuclear program.

The two issues are “totally different,” said Hyun, adding any attempt to force North Korea to comply with an inspection regime would lead to further tensions.

Yongbyon was 90 percent disabled and North Korea extracted 4,740 spent fuel rods, Hyun said, without elaborating. Removing the rods is a key process in disablement, and South Korean officials estimate the reactor has about 8,000.

“They are continuing work that could lead to their restarting Yongbyon,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington today. The process is still in the preparatory stage of reversing the disablement and making the reactor operational again, he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice probably will discuss the issue with her Chinese counterpart when they meet in New York next week during the United Nations General Assembly.

Hyun met with Hwang Joon Kook, South Korea's deputy chief nuclear negotiator. Their talks focused on providing energy aid equivalent to 1 million metric tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea, as agreed under the six-nation accord.

Hwang called on North Korea to resume disabling Yongbyon.

“We want to make sure that the six-party process does not go backward,” Hwang told Hyun.

South Korea and other countries in the six-nation forum will fulfill their obligation to send the rest of the promised energy aid to North Korea, Hwang said.