North Korea may be preparing to shut down its main nuclear reactor, news reports said on Tuesday, renewing hopes that Pyongyang will comply with a disarmament agreement days after it missed a deadline to shutter the facility.
Just hours later, South Korea said food aid to the North will be discussed as planned at economic cooperation talks between the Koreas -- despite earlier reports that Seoul was considering halting the shipments in an apparent move to ratchet up pressure on the North, which has requested 400,000 tons of rice.
"The issue of food aid will be discussed" at the talks set to begin Wednesday in Pyongyang, Deputy Unification Minister Kim Jung-tae told South Korean media at a briefing that foreign reporters were barred from attending. Kim's comments were later confirmed by the ministry.
South Korea has periodically sent rice and fertiliser to the impoverished North since a 2000 summit spawned historic reconciliation between the Koreas, but often faces criticism from conservatives here and abroad for being too lenient on its northern neighbour.
North Korea's Yongbyon reactor remained in operation Tuesday, but there was a high possibility that movement of cars and people at the site recorded in satellite photos could be linked to a shutdown, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unnamed intelligence official. The Dong-a Ilbo daily carried a similar report.
An official at the National Intelligence Service, South Korea's main spy agency, told The Associated Press they were "following and analyzing some peculiar movements" around the reactor in North Korea, without elaborating. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.
Yonhap news agency cited another unnamed intelligence official as saying that South Korea and the United States have been closely monitoring some movement since a month ago.
"The intensity of these activities has increased from about a week or two ago," the official was quoted as saying.
"There are activities other than cars and people moving busily." The report comes after the North missed a Saturday deadline to shut down the reactor and allow UN inspectors to verify and seal the facility under a February agreement with the US and four other countries.
If the North complies, that would be its first move toward stopping production of nuclear weapons since 2002, the start of the latest nuclear standoff.
The North is believed to have produced as many as a dozen atomic bombs since then, and conducted an underground nuclear test in October.
Pyongyang said last week that honoring its pledge was contingent on the release of money frozen in a separate financial dispute after Washington blacklisted a bank where North Korea had accounts.
The funds were allegedly used in money laundering and counterfeiting. The money was freed for withdrawal last week, but it's unclear when the North will move to get its US$25 million (euro18.6 million). South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon spoke by telephone on Tuesday with his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, and the two "strongly expressed expectations that North Korea will soon implement disarmament measures," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Song and Rice "reaffirmed that the door to resolving the (bank) issue is clearly open to North Korea and agreed to continue discussions among related countries to resolve the issue," the statement said.
China said on Tuesday that it hoped the bank dispute would be resolved and progress made on disarming the North.
"We look forward to and welcome the continuing constructive efforts from all parties concerned to jointly promote the process" of disarmament talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement on the ministry website.
Meanwhile, Macau's Banco Delta Asia said on Monday it had filed a legal challenge to Washington's decision to cut it off from the US financial system.
The bank told the US Department of Treasury that its accusations of abetting North Korea's alleged illicit activities "lacked specific facts" and were motivated by politics, the bank said in a statement.
In Washington, the US Treasury Department expressed confidence it would ultimately prevail in the legal challenge.