Skepticism swirls around North Korea trip

A US delegation that included a noted Los Alamos expert is briefing US officials and allies this week regarding its five-day, headline-grabbing trip to North Korea, which included a visit to a nuclear facility that was closed more than a year ago.

Yet despite what appears to be a bid by North Korea to create an atmosphere of great expectations, the trip is unlikely to alter the stalemate over talks or to play a role in negotiations in Beijing later this month, say analysts, some of whom feel the trip was "overplayed" by American media. Even worries expressed by senior US officials that the trip will be used by the North to mollify or gain leverage with other members of the six-party negotiating nations seems unfounded, they argue.

"The trip will provide a few new data points that may be used by the US administration," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "Yes, the North can say 'we let outsiders visit the Yongbyon facility,' but I don't believe the Chinese or the South Koreans will be willing to go along with the idea that this constitutes something to be used in the official process."

The unofficial US team, invited by North Korea, did not conduct an actual inspection: The delegation was not allowed to bring monitoring equipment into the nuclear facility, which includes a reprocessing plant and a five-megawatt experimental reactor, and were not allowed to bring samples back out.

"They went for three days of inspections, but looked at the plant in the midst of formalities, meetings, and under complete guard," says a senior foreign policy aide to a US Senator. "So what will this actually do? What did they take with them - geiger counters? We know the North has at least two bombs."

While two team members, congressional aides Keith Luse and Frank Januzzi, confirmed the visit to the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, they refused to comment on North Korean claims that they had seen the North's "nuclear deterrent."

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that North Korea might have shown the team reprocessed plutonium.

According to Januzzi, the delegation held wide-ranging talks with military and government officials. "We discussed not only the nuclear issue but also human rights, prison camps, economic reforms, abductions and the military-first policy," he says.

The delegation also included Jack Pritchard, a former State Department official who resigned last year over differences with the White House on the North, and Siegfried Hecker, a former head of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, birthplace of the US atomic program.

Some experts speculate the North's invitation was due to frustration with a lack of progress in talks, and is designed to pressure the Bush team. One possible cause for the visit was to allow officials from the isolated North to talk with unofficial American interlocutors.

Yet sources say even these Americans would have described to them "the current reality factor" - that nuclear weapons development will not enhance Pyongyang's security and will continue to keep it isolated.

During much of last year, the North Korean nuclear program was one of the testiest questions facing the Bush administration. The White House has argued that the North must conduct a "complete and verifiable" dismantling of its programs.

Last week, the North stated that it would be "folly" for the US to hope that Pyongyang would follow the recent path of Libya, which has agreed to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs.

The stalemate has caused a number of senior advisers to question whether any progress can be made on the North Korean issue without direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang - resulting in clearly defined "sticks and carrots" on a range of additional questions, including fuel, humanitarian aid, and human rights.

More details surrounding the visit are expected to emerge after the team completes its briefings in Washington, including a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Jan. 20.

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