North Korea-U.S. Nuclear Deal Unraveling

The nuclear disarmament deal between North Korea and the United States appears to be unraveling. North Korea has banned U.N. inspectors from a nuclear weapons complex, and there are reports that it may be getting ready to test some short-range missiles.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

North Korea continues to take steps that could unravel its nuclear disarmament deal with the United States. Yesterday, North Korea said inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency would no longer have access to its nuclear weapons complex. A South Korean newspaper is also reporting that North Korea has deployed 10 short-range missiles to its west coast. They might be getting ready for test flights. These steps come after the top U.S. negotiator visited North Korea last week but made little progress. NPR's Mike Shuster has been carrying the story for quite some time. And Mike, how do we know what is going on in North Korea's nuclear weapons complex if the inspectors can't get in?

MIKE SHUSTER: Well, first off, there are still inspectors there. The North Koreans have said that they won't have access to all the facilities at Yongbyon, but it's not clear that they have actually kicked them out. They seem to be in somewhat of a limbo. As I understand it, Steve, there are still American officials in Yongbyon, and this announcement doesn't appear to affect them. There have been threats on part of the North Koreans to begin again producing plutonium at Yongbyon. But over the past year there's been much damage to the facilities there. The United States and North Korea have called it disabling the facility and that culminated last June in the explosive destruction of the cooling tower of the operating nuclear reactor there. So they can't really restart this facility quickly even though they're threatening to. And in the meantime, the United States has satellites which watch this area regularly.

INSKEEP: So there's still some surveillance, but there's also the matter of these missiles that were moved to North Korea's west coast?

SHUSTER: That's right. There's a report, also citing US satellite images, that 10 short range surface-to-ship or ship-to-ship missiles have been deployed on the west coast of North Korea. This follows by a couple of days two test flights already that occurred on Tuesday from North Korea into the sea. There's an expectation that they might then therefore decide to launch these missiles again. But all of this seem to be playing into a very typical pattern that the North Koreans have engaged in over the years when they have been negotiating the various nuclear deals with the United States, which is essentially to push this to the brink. They are masters of brinksmanship and experts on North Korea believe that what's going on now.

INSKEEP: OK. If it's negotiating tactic, what is it that North Korea wants?

SHUSTER: Well, the deal is somewhat simple. They felt that they had disabled their nuclear facilities as the United States and the other nations that are party to the six party talks asked of them. The deal was that the United States would take them off the terrorism list, the State Department's list of states sponsors of terrorism and lift some sanctions. The United States hasn't done that. In fact, the United States came back asking there to be a very intrusive verification plan first before the United States would take them off to terrorism list and that's why Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill went to Pyongyang last week to negotiate this. But that's what this really is all about.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, is it possible that the United States could still be taking North Korea off the terrorist list despite these latest provocations?

SHUSTER: Yes, very possible. In fact, there seems to be an intense debate over the past few days in the administration about this. And now there are various reports coming out of sources in Washington that in fact there will be a compromise quite soon and the United States is prepared to take North Korea off this list as long as there is some protocol for verification of all the details of North Korea's nuclear program.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Shuster covers North Korea. Thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Steve.

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