By Anna Fifield in Seoul

The disablement of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor has got off “to a good start”, the US diplomat overseeing the process said on Tuesday, amid renewed expectations that the plant will be unworkable by the end of the year.

This is the first time Pyongyang has allowed steps to reverse its nuclear programme, reflecting the result of North Korea’s increasing desperation for international aid and the US’s desire for a foreign policy success story.

“I think we are off to a good start,” Sung Kim, head of the Korea desk in the US State Department said in Seoul on Tuesday, after several days in Pyongyang. “I hope to achieve all the disablement, at least this phase of disablement, by December 31,” he said.

The US-led team of nuclear experts has since Monday taken steps to roll back operations at all three of the key facilities at Yongbyon – the Soviet-era 5-megawatt reactor, and the nuclear fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants. Yongbyon provided the plutonium that North Korea used to conduct its first nuclear test in October last year.

Details of the disablement remain scarce, but Christopher Hill, the US’s chief negotiator in the talks about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, said at the weekend that the facilities would be disabled to the point where it would take North Korea at least a year to restart the reactor if it wanted to.

Pyongyang froze the plant during the 1990s under a deal with the Clinton administration, but restarted it in 2003. It has never started unwinding its nuclear programme, which it has long insisted it needs to act as a deterrent against the “hostile policies” of the US.

Under a deal struck in February this year, North Korea agreed to disable and eventually dismantle the Yongbyon facility and declare all its nuclear programmes, both plutonium and uranium based. South Korean and US officials have this week reiterated that they still expect that declaration to be made by the end of this year.

In return, South Korea, Russia, China and the US have agreed to provided 1m tonnes of heavy fuel oil to energy-impoverished North Korea as it proceeds down the road to complete disarmament. The other party to the multilateral talks, Japan, has recently begun to suggest that it might contribute despite the lack of progress on a bilateral abduction dispute.

The US is meanwhile discussing removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and lifting restrictions in place under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Separately, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, arrived in Seoul on Tuesday for talks about US-South Korea alliance. More than 25,000 US troops remain on the southern half of the Korean peninsula, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war.

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