U.N. inspectors arrived in North Korea on Saturday to monitor the communist country’s long-anticipated promise to scale back its nuclear weapons program, while the top U.S. nuclear envoy said he expected Pyongyang’s reactor to be shut down in a matter of days.
An initial shipment of oil aid arrived hours earlier Saturday, in return for Pyongyang’s pledge to close down its main nuclear reactor. The move would be the North’s first step in nearly five years toward the de-nuclearization of the peninsula.
The 10-member team from the International Atomic Energy Agency was heading directly to Yongbyon, about 60 miles northeast of the capital, to begin monitoring the shutdown.
Going directly to site
“We are going directly to the nuclear site at Yongbyon,” IAEA team chief Adel Tolba told broadcaster APTN outside the Pyongyang airport. Footage showed dozens of cardboard boxes being loaded onto the back of two trucks.
Tolba said the team would stay in North Korea as long as needed to complete its work.
After years of tortuous negotiations and delays — during which the North argued its nuclear program was needed for self-defense — the reclusive communist regime said earlier this month that once it received the oil shipment, it would consider halting its reactor.
North Korea did not give any timetable for starting the shutdown but top U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill said it would happen over the next few days.
“I think it’s a matter of today, tomorrow, maybe Monday,” Hill told reporters in the Japanese resort town of Hakone south of Tokyo.
Hill also said he expected the North to submit a list of its nuclear facilities within months, as was agreed to in February’s round of talks.
“We expect the comprehensive list in a matter of several weeks, possibly several months,” Hill said.
S. Korean fuel arrives
The South Korean tanker No. 9 Han Chang, carrying 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil, arrived Saturday at the North’s northeastern port of Sonbong, and the oil was being unloaded, a Unification Ministry official said. The South Korean official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Saturday’s delivery was part of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil the North has been promised in exchange for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor. Pyongyang eventually will receive 1 million tons of oil for dismantling its nuclear program.
After the IAEA team installs monitoring equipment, personnel will remain at Yongbyon to ensure the reactor remains shut down, said a diplomat familiar with North Korea’s file at the IAEA.
“The IAEA plans to have a permanent presence there, with some experts remaining at the site continuously,” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
North Korea agreed earlier this year to shut down its reactor and take other steps toward disarmament in exchange for the oil and other financial and political concessions in a deal with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
The agreement eased a standoff that began in October 2002, when the U.S. said North Korean officials had admitted during meetings in Pyongyang to having a secret uranium enrichment program. Washington said that violated a 1994 agreement for the North’s disarmament, and a month later halted oil shipments under that deal.
The North reacted by expelling IAEA monitors on New Year’s Eve, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting the reactor.
Plutonium to make a dozen bombs?
Since then, North Korea has occasionally shut down the reactor to remove fuel rods and extract plutonium — and is believed to have harvested enough to construct at least a dozen atomic bombs.
The North set off an underground test explosion in October, leading to intensified international efforts to negotiate an end to Pyongyang’s arms program.
When it does act to shut down the reactor again, the North will term it simply a suspension of operations — a move that could be easily reversed, as it was in 2002.
But Hill said Friday that Washington hoped to quickly move beyond the mere freeze of the reactor and dismantle the program by year’s end.
“Where we would like to be at the end of the year is with the Yongbyon facility disabled,” he said after meeting with his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo to prepare for another round of the six-nation nuclear talks next week in Beijing.
“As I’ve said before, we lost a lot of time in the early part of this year and now we have to do a lot in the second part if we are to achieve our objectives,” Hill said.
The U.S. was forced to back down on a separate banking dispute in which Washington blacklisted a Macau bank for dealing with the North, saying it was helping the regime launder money. The bank remains banned from doing business with U.S. institutions, but the North Korean funds were freed earlier this year with U.S. approval.