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S Korea nuclear envoy to N Korea

North Korean guard looks at the South, 2008
North Korea's recent ties with South Korea have been hostile

South Korea's deputy nuclear envoy is travelling to North Korea in the first high level visit in a year.

Hwang Joon-kook is to survey unused nuclear fuel rods in North Korea.

A 2007 aid-for-disarmament deal agreed in six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear programme has stumbled over the issue of verification of disarmament.

A North Korean spokesman recently insisted it would not show all its nuclear weapons unless a simultaneous verification took place in South Korea.

In a statement relayed by official media, the foreign affairs ministry spokesman suggested there were "US nukes" in South Korea - something Washington and Seoul deny.

The president-elect and I believe [the six-party framework] has merit but it also provides an opportunity ... for bilateral contact as well between North Korea and the United States
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State-designate
"We will never do such a thing as showing our nuclear weapons first even in 100 years unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are fundamentally terminated," the spokesman said.

Before leaving for Pyongyang, Mr Hwang said such comments were not new and that diplomatic efforts would continue to seek an end to the standoff with the North.

"Relevant countries are making efforts to denuclearise North Korea," Mr Hwang told reporters.

Observers note that while the North may be sending a strong message to Washington ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, it is not necessarily hostile.

They recently noted the unusual lack of criticism directed at the US in the North's new year message, and the fact that Mr Hwang is making the trip despite months of icy North-South relations.

Fuel rods

Mr Hwang and his team of nuclear experts plan to check the "size, composition and storage conditions" of unused fuel rods stored at North Korea's main Yongbyon nuclear plant, officials said.

wang Joon-kook answers reporters' questions before leaving for North Korea via Beijing on Wednesday,
How long Mr Hwang will stay in North Korea is unknown
At present, his visit is open-ended.

The regime agreed in December during the latest disarmament talks to export its 14,000 unused fuel rods, and South Korea is a possible purchaser of the rods.

Mr Hwang said no decision had yet been made.

The North also has some 8,000 spent fuel rods which, if reprocessed, could allow the North to harvest weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear bombs.

North Korea agreed in 2007 to a six-nation agreement promising aid in exchange for disarmament.

US Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton has said she backs the six-party talks.

"It is a framework that the president-elect and I believe has merit but it also provides an opportunity... for bilateral contact as well between North Korea and the United States," Mrs Clinton said at her Senate confirmation hearing.

Warnings

But talks have stalled for months on US concerns about how to verify the North's past nuclear activities, including the US demand that North Korea disclose its full nuclear arsenal.

In his statement on Tuesday, North Korea's spokesman repeated Pyongyang's commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula but said verification must take place at the last stage of the disarmament process - not the second of three phases as the US wants.

Kim Jong Il, rear centre, in an undated picture purportedly showing a visit to a library
Mr Kim, 66, is reportedly suffering from heart disease and diabetes

"We won't need atomic weapons when US nuclear threats are removed, and the US nuclear umbrella over South Korea is gone," he said.

However, the Asia adviser of outgoing US President George Bush, Dennis Wilder, has predicted that North Korea will try to break apart the "five-party consortium that has been created," he said, of talks in which China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US have tried to pressure North Korea.

Instability must also be prepared for given the uncertainty about the health of the North's leader Kim Jong-il, he said.

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