Jo Hyoung-kyun  /  AP
South Korean workers load bags of rice for victims of floods in North Korea into a ship at Mockpo, South Korea, on Aug. 30. South Korea may suspend rice aid to North Korea until the communist regime takes steps to shut down its main nuclear reactor.
updated 4/16/2007 9:07:08 PM ET 2007-04-17T01:07:08

South Korea may suspend rice shipments to North Korea to ratchet up pressure for it to comply with its nuclear disarmament pledges after it missed a deadline to shut a reactor, an official said Monday. A news report hours later said the North could be preparing for a shutdown.

"We can't just ignore and do nothing if ... North Korea doesn't take initial steps" to disarm as agreed in February at six-nation nuclear talks, an unnamed South Korean official said, according to the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper. Other dailies carried similar reports.

The Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday that the South Korea government has detected activity around North Korea's main nuclear reactor that may be related to preparations for a shutdown.

The Yongbyon reactor was still in operation Tuesday, but there was a high possibility that movements of cars and people at the site seen in satellite photos could be linked to a shutdown, Yonhap reported, citing an unnamed government official.

‘Peculiar movements’
An official at the National Intelligence Service, South Korea's main spy agency, told The Associated Press they were "following and analyzing some peculiar movements" around the reactor in North Korea, without elaborating further. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.

Yonhap cited another unnamed intelligence official as saying that South Korea and the United States have been closely monitoring some movements from a month ago.

"The intensity of these activities has increased from about a week or two ago," the official was quoted as saying. "There are activities other than cars and people moving busily."

The two Koreas were set to begin talks Wednesday in Pyongyang to discuss the North's request for 400,000 tons of rice.

South Korea periodically sends rice and fertilizer to the impoverished North, which has relied heavily on foreign handouts since the mid-1990s when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy and famine led to the deaths of as many as 2 million people.

Unclear intentions
An official at South Korea's Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korean affairs, said "nothing has been decided yet." The official spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

It wasn't clear if the official's comment reflected a step back from the ministry's earlier position that South Korea would give rice to the North even if the shutdown deadline was missed.

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North Korea had until Saturday to shut down its nuclear reactor, but failed to do so because of a delay in the release of its $25 million in funds frozen in a Macau bank, which was blacklisted by the United States for allegedly assisting the communist regime in money-laundering and counterfeiting.

The North has said it won't take steps to disarm until all the funds are released.

Meanwhile, Macau's Banco Delta Asia said Monday it had filed a legal challenge to Washington's decision to cut it off from the U.S. financial system. The bank told the U.S. Department of Treasury that its accusations "lacked specific facts" and they were motivated by politics, the bank said in a statement.

It did not elaborate, saying only the U.S. move was "politically motivated since it was based on disputes between the United States and North Korea." The bank has repeatedly denied knowingly helping in North Korea's alleged illicit activities.

In Washington, Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said the U.S. "has confidence in the merits of its action against Banco Delta Asia, as demonstrated by the information put forth in the final rule," which blacklisted the bank.

Russian chides U.S.
A Russian official said Monday that the U.S. failure to allow the North to have access to its funds had stalled progress on the February agreement.

Under that accord between North Korea and five other nations — South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. — the North was also to receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to be donated by the South in return for shuttering its reactor.

"There won't be any progress until the North Korean side says that it has received the money," Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said, according to the Interfax, ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti news agencies.

Also Monday, Japan said it was "not appropriate" to set a new deadline for the reactor shutdown and instead insisted that the North respect its promises.

"It is extremely regrettable that North Korea did not follow the agreement," said chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki. "North Korea is in a position to immediately implement the agreement."

‘We’re not happy’
Before leaving Beijing on Sunday, the main U.S. nuclear negotiator said Washington would give the North a "few more days" to act.

"We're not happy that the (North) essentially has missed this very important deadline," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters. "We're obviously going to be watching the situation very closely in the coming days."

The North has made no official comment has come since the deadline, with the country consumed in celebrations for one of its main holidays: the birthday of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994.

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