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Top Chinese Nuke Envoy to Visit S.Korea

KWANG-TAE KIM / AP | September 24 2006

SEOUL, South Korea -- China's top nuclear envoy plans to visit South Korea as early as Thursday to discuss ways to jump-start stalled talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, South Korean officials said.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei is scheduled to visit Seoul to consult on the nuclear issue with South Korean officials, and to discuss the agenda of a Beijing summit next month between South Korean and Chinese leaders, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The meeting comes amid new concerns that North Korea could harvest more weapons-grade plutonium by removing fuel rods at its Yongbyon reactor within the next three months.

North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan has said that his country would unload the rods "beginning this fall, and no later than the end of the year," according to Selig Harrison, an American scholar who recently met Kim in Pyongyang. North Korea last removed fuel rods at the facility in June 2005 and was not due to do so again until June 2007, Harrison said Saturday.

North Korea boasts that it has nuclear bombs, but the claim has not been independently verified. Many experts believe the North has enough radioactive material to build at least a half-dozen or more nuclear weapons.

The North has not carried out any known tests of nuclear weapons. But foreign intelligence reports last month said unusual activity at a possible testing site had been detected, sparking fears of an imminent test.

North Korea agreed a year ago to give up its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees. But negotiations on implementing the deal have been deadlocked due to Pyongyang's boycott of the talks in anger over U.S. financial sanctions blocking its access to outside banks for the regime's alleged complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and President Bush agreed in Washington this month to formulate a "joint comprehensive approach" on restarting the nuclear talks, which also involve China, Russia and Japan, according to South Korean officials.

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