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Monday, November 16, 1998 Published at 07:50 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

US fears over North Korea nuclear plans

North Korea's nuclear capability is largely unknown

An American delegation is making a rare visit to North Korea on Monday to investigate fears the country is conducting a covert underground nuclear programme.

Intelligence officials say surveillance photos taken earlier this year showed thousands of workers burrowing into the side of a mountain near a known nuclear plant.

[ image: Kim Il Sung: Founder of the secretive state]
Kim Il Sung: Founder of the secretive state
The US is demanding Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charles Kartman be allowed to see the site near Yongbyon, where a Soviet-era, heavy-water reactor is being mothballed.

It wants proof that North Korea, one of the world's last communist states, is not using the complex for nuclear activities it had agreed to halt.

America fears North Korea, which has a medium-range missile capability, may be able to make crude atomic bombs.

North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear programme in a 1994 deal in exchange for safe nuclear reactors built by an international consortium.

Richard Lister reports from Washington on US concerns
But a US State Department official said there were now serious concerns about whether the North Koreans were sticking to their side of the bargain.

"We have some pretty serious doubts about whether they are living up to that deal,'' he said. ''They are going to have to prove to us they are not [reviving a nuclear weapons programme]."

North demands payment for US 'insult'

But North Korea, which insists the underground complex is for civilian purposes, says demands to view the facility are a wanton interference in its domestic affairs.

[ image: Missiles on display]
Missiles on display
It is demanding the Americans pay compensation for impugning its reputation if an inspection shows their fears were wrong.

The country, which depends on outside aid to feed its 22 million people, is in desperate need of hard currency.

"Should the US wish, despite all, to see [the site], they must respond to our open and aboveboard demands and pay proper reparations," the Korean Central News Agency said last week.

The fact-finding tour, headed by Mr Kartman, is the highest level US visit since 1994, when North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear programme in exchange for safe nuclear reactors built by an international consortium.

Mr Kartman has spent the past few days in South Korea discussing the situation.

The two Koreas, technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce instead of a peace agreement, have no direct communication.

Fears about the North's possible nuclear activities were raised in August when it launched a rocket in the direction of Japan.

North Korea said it was a satellite, but many feared it was a missile.

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