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North Korea likely to miss end-of-year deadline

/ Source: The Associated Press

North Korea appeared set Monday to miss a year-end deadline to disable a key nuclear reactor and declare all its nuclear programs, key elements of its disarmament as agreed to in an international accord.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea expressed disappointment. But there was no indication that North Korea would immediately face any sanction — suggesting countries involved in negotiating the agreement were reluctant to raise tensions after a year of progress in the long-standing dispute.

The communist country promised in October to disable its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, and give a full accounting of its nuclear programs by Dec. 31 in return for energy aid and political concessions.

The North shut down the plutonium-producing facility in July and disablement work is under way in cooperation with U.S. experts.

But diplomats have said the North is likely to miss the year-end deadline for disablement because a key step — removing fuel rods from the reactor — could take several months. South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon has said there would also be problems in meeting the deadline for disclosure.

Delays in economic aid
There was no immediate comment from North Korea on Monday. Last week, a North Korean official complained of delays in the delivery of economic aid and said the country would have no choice but to slow disablement.

Song, however, downplayed the remarks and said the disablement work was going well.

The United States, which has said it was not aware of delays in delivering aid to the North, criticized the country's failure to disclose its nuclear programs.

"It is unfortunate that North Korea has not yet met its commitments by providing a complete and correct declaration of its nuclear programs and slowing down the process of disablement," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Sunday.

"We urge North Korea to deliver a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear weapons programs and proliferation activities and complete the agreed disablement," he said.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry pressed the North as well.

"Our government urges North Korea to faithfully declare all nuclear programs at an early date and complete disablement steps without delay," the ministry said in a statement.

Japan also expressed regret that the North appeared set to miss the deadline, and urged the regime to declare its nuclear programs immediately.

"North Korea must provide a complete and accurate declaration of all its nuclear programs at the earliest possible date, and make swift and solid progress in disabling its three nuclear facilities at Yongbyon," Japan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement released Monday.

The nuclear standoff began in late 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of seeking to secretly enrich uranium in violation of a 1994 disarmament deal.

In late 2003, the North began negotiations over its nuclear program with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. As talks stalled, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, an underground blast, in October 2006.

Renewed talks led to a disarmament deal in February.

Reasons for the delay in declaring the nuclear programs appear related in part to the country's suspected uranium enrichment program. Song has said that more consultation was required on the alleged program.