South Korea on rare nuclear visit to North

South Korean officials will make a rare visit to North Korea on Thursday to check Pyongyang’s progress in keeping to an international disarmament deal, in a trip that comes weeks after the North clamped down on its border.

This will be the first high-level South Korean government delegation to visit Pyongyang since President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008 and is one of a handful of nuclear teams from the South ever to visit the North.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday the team will inspect nuclear fuel rods at the North’s ageing reactor as part of disablement steps called for in a stalled disarmament-for-aid deal Pyongyang signed with five regional powers.

The visit comes as North Korea appeared to have extended an olive branch to United States President-elect Barack Obama by saying in a New Year’s message it was willing to work with countries that are friendly towards it.

South Korean media this week said the North asked to send a top nuclear envoy to Obama’s inauguration.

“Our team of inspectors aim to take part in the decision on the handling of unused fuel rods possessed by North Korea and will focus on technical and economic aspects in their work,” the ministry said in a statement.

The team will discuss the possible purchase of unused fuel rods, local media quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official as saying at a news briefing. The ministry barred foreign media from attending but confirmed the report hours later.

The US last month called for a halt in heavy fuel oil aid to punish the North for failing to agree to a system to verify the claims it made about its nuclear arms programme, considered one of the region’s greatest security threats.

Analysts said the energy-starved North, whose economy is smaller now than it was 20 years ago, could see a downward slide in production if it lost out on the fuel aid promised to it as a part of the nuclear deal it reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US.

Relations between North and South Korea have chilled over the past year, with Pyongyang cutting almost all ties with Seoul in anger at the policies of Lee, who cut the free flow of unconditional aid that once headed to his impoverished neighbour.

The two Koreas are technically still at war because their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a truce and not with a peace treaty.

The South Korean team led by Hwang Joon-kook will fly into North Korea from Beijing and is expected to visit the communist state’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon about 100km north of the capital, Pyongyang.

South Korea has been pushing for talks with the North after the sputtering nuclear disarmament process hit another snag late last year after Pyongyang refused to accept a proposal to allow inspectors to take nuclear samples out of the country. - Reuters

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