N. Korea bars U.N. inspectors from plant

The Bush administration warned Wednesday that North Korea would isolate itself if it backtracks and reactivates the plant that once provided plutonium for an atomic test explosion.

North Korea barred U.N. nuclear inspectors from its main nuclear plant Wednesday and, within a week, plans to reactivate the plant that once provided the plutonium for the explosive test two years ago, a senior U.N. nuclear inspector said. The nation ordered the removal of the U.N. seals and surveillance equipment from the Yongbyon reactor, a sign it is making good on threats to restart its nuclear program.

“We believe that for the North Koreans to do so, it would only deepen its isolation,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

U.S. diplomats are talking during this week's gathering of the U.N. General Assembly with other nations bargaining with the North.

“Everyone knows what the path ahead is. The path ahead is for there to be agreement on verification protocol so that we can continue along the path of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The North Koreans know that, and so we'll continue working with our partners on what steps we might need to take,” Rice said.

The Bush administration remains convinced the current diplomatic approach is the best way to deal with the nuclear situation, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said North Korea's actions run counter to the “six-party talks,” in which North Korea agreed to pursue nuclear disarmament in exchange for diplomatic concessions and aid. Beyond the U.S. and North Korea, the other parties in those talks are South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

Rice said those talks are not dead.

Coming amid reports that that leader Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, the nuclear reversal has fueled worries about a breakdown of international attempts to coax the North out of its confrontational isolation with most of the rest of the world.

North Korean officials have “informed the IAEA inspectors that they plan to introduce nuclear material to the reprocessing plant in one week's time,” said a statement citing Olli Heinonen, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Heinonen told the IAEA board that – acting on a North Korean request – his inspectors removed all agency seals and surveillance equipment from the reprocessing plant and its immediate area, in “work that was completed today,” according to the statement.

North Korea had agreed in February 2007 to begin dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for aid and other concessions.

Scientists began disabling its reactor in November, and in June blew up the Yongbyon cooling tower in a dramatic show of its commitment to the pact. Eight of the 11 steps needed to disable the reactor were completed by July, North Korean officials said.

But later that month, Washington made an additional request: detailed verification of the process, including soil samples and interviews with scientists. The U.S. pinned one of its concessions – removing North Korea from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism – on verification. The process has since stalled.