Apr 152009

WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States said Wednesday that American experts working at North Korea’s main nuclear plant have been asked to leave the country, further heightening tension following the North’s firing of a rocket earlier this month over U.S. ally Japan.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters that the four U.S. officials monitoring the North’s disablement of its Yongbyon nuclear plant are now making preparations to leave.

“It’s a step backward,” Wood said. “The North is going to have to deal with the consequences of such decisions. And they just bring upon themselves further isolation from the international community.”

The expulsions come amid North Korean fury at international condemnation of its rocket launch.

North Korea claims it sent a satellite into space April 5. After the U.N. Security Council condemned the launch, the North vowed to boycott international nuclear disarmament talks and to restart its atomic program. The U.N. atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Pyongyang ordered inspectors to remove seals and cameras from the nuclear complex and to leave the country.

In Vienna, a diplomat close to the IAEA says North Korea has expelled IAEA inspectors from Yongbyon. The diplomat spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to release the information.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006, but it then agreed to abandon its nuclear program in return for fuel oil shipments arranged in talks with China, Russia, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.

Between six and eight U.S. experts have typically been at Yongbyon since November 2007. There are currently four monitors at the site.

In June 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower at Yongbyon in a dramatic show of its commitment to ending its nuclear program.

But nuclear disablement has stalled over a disagreement between the United States and the North over how the North will verify its atomic activities. The latest round of six-nation talks, in December, ended in deadlock.

Wood did not have details about when the U.S. nuclear experts would leave. He said the U.S. and North Korea are “talking about the logistics of that departure. … They’re making preparations to leave.”

Negotiators have “offered the North a path to get back in the good graces of the international community,” Wood said, calling the North’s decision unhelpful.

“It’s not going to lead to a resolution of these outstanding issues,” he said.

Dennis Wilder, who served as President George W. Bush’s senior Asia adviser, said he is not convinced the North will permanently pull out of nuclear negotiations. The actions of North Korea’s ailing leader, Kim Jong Il, appear to be more about shoring up hard-line support as he works out a succession plan than about the stance of the Obama administration, said Wilder, now an analyst at the Brookings Institution.

“Kim wants to show he’s fully in charge and powerful and firing off a missile is a good sign of power,” Wilder said.

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