SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea may be preparing to shut down its main nuclear reactor, news reports said Tuesday, renewing hopes that Pyongyang will comply with a disarmament agreement days after it missed a deadline to shutter the facility.
The report came a day after a South Korean official said this government may suspend rice shipments to North Korea to ratchet up pressure on the North to comply with its nuclear disarmament pledges.
The Yongbyon reactor was still in operation, but there was a high possibility that movement of cars and people at the site seen 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 U.N. inspectors to verify and seal the facility under a February agreement with the U.S. 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 test detonation 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 $25 million.
Macau's Banco Delta Asia said Monday it had filed a legal challenge to Washington's decision to cut it off from the U.S. financial system. The bank told the U.S. Department of Treasury that its accusations ``lacked specific facts'' and were motivated by politics, the bank said in a statement.
The U.S. move was ``politically motivated since it was based on disputes between the United States and North Korea.'' The bank has repeatedly denied knowingly helping in North Korea's alleged illicit activities.
On Monday, an unnamed South Korean official said South Korea could temporarily suspend rice shipments to North Korea in an effort to increase pressure on the North to shut down the atomic reactor.
``We can't just ignore and do nothing if ... North Korea doesn't take initial steps'' to disarm as agreed in February at six-nation nuclear talks, the official said, according to the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper. Other dailies carried similar reports.
The two Koreas were set to begin talks Wednesday in Pyongyang to discuss the North's request for 400,000 tons of rice.
South Korea periodically sends rice and fertilizer to the impoverished North, which has relied heavily on foreign handouts since the mid-1990s when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy and famine led to the deaths of as many as 2 million people.
An official at South Korea's Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korean affairs, said ``nothing has been decided yet.'' The official spoke on customary condition of anonymity.
It wasn't clear if the official's comment reflected a step back from the ministry's earlier position that South Korea would give rice to the North even if the shutdown deadline was missed.