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N. Korea lifts ban on U.N. nuclear inspectors

North Korea declared Monday that it will resume shutting down its nuclear program and allow U.N. experts to monitor the process.
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Korea declared Monday that it will resume shutting down its nuclear program and allow U.N. experts to monitor the process, including making sure the plant that produced plutonium for its test bomb remains disabled.

The moves, revealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, were a strong indication that Pyongyang was making good on its pledge to return to a deal with the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea and Japan meant to strip it of its weapons-enabling nuclear program.

Pyongyang announced Sunday it would resume dismantlement in line with the deal offering political and energy rewards in exchange, after the U.S. removed North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism.

"The agency inspectors were ... informed today that as of 14 October 2008, core discharge activities at the (nuclear) reactor would be resumed," said a restricted IAEA document to the agency's 35 board members obtained by The Associated Press. It said "monitoring and verification arrangements" of the U.N. nuclear agency also would be restarted.

Monitoring restored
Separately, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said IAEA inspectors "will also now be permitted to reapply the containment and surveillance measures at the reprocessing facility." That meant agency seals taken off the plant and monitoring cameras recently removed at the North's orders would be restored.

Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, has three main facilities: a 5-megawatt reactor, a plutonium reprocessing plant and a fuel fabrication complex.

The reactor is the centerpiece of the complex, with the facility stretching more than a mile along the Churyong River, satellite images show.

The reprocessing center to the south of the reactor is capable of extracting weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods.

Up to late last week, the North had threatened to reactivate the plutonium reprocessing plant. It told International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to remove the organization's seals and subsequently banned them from monitoring first the plant and then all the facilities at the complex. It also stopped deactivating the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

The North rescinded all inspection rights Thursday, but the three-member IAEA team had been allowed to stay on site. A diplomat who demanded anonymity for divulging confidential information told the AP that Pyongyang approved visas late last week for members of a new team once the tour of those on location is over — even as it appeared to be making moves to restart its atomic activities.

Negotiating ploy?
That suggested that the North's threat to stop dismantling its nuclear program and restart it was a negotiating ploy meant to wrest concessions from the five countries engaging the reclusive communist regime on the issue.

North Korea stopped scrapping its nuclear program in mid-August in anger over Washington's failure to remove it from the terror list and began moves toward restarting its plutonium-producing facility. The U.S. had said North Korea first had to allow verification of the declaration of its nuclear programs it submitted in June.

In delisting North Korea on Saturday, Washington said Pyongyang had agreed to all its nuclear inspection demands.

The delisting — and the North's return to disabling its nuclear facilities — will likely lead to a resumption of the stalled six-party talks between North Korea, U.S., Russia, China, South Korea and Japan.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the resolution of the dispute. His spokeswoman, Michelle Montas, said Ban considered it "another step towards a verifiable non-nuclear Korean Peninsula."

North Korea alarmed the world in 2006 by setting of a test nuclear blast. It then agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid and other concessions.

The regime began disabling its nuclear processing plant in Yongbyon in November, and blew up a cooling tower in June in a dramatic display of its determination to carry out the process.

Just steps away from completing the second phase of the three-part process, Pyongyang abruptly reversed course and stopped disabling the plant.

With the international standoff apparently ending, South Korea said Monday it was considering expanding cross-border projects, including food aid to the impoverished North.

Relations between the divided Koreas have worsened since a conservative, pro-U.S. government was inaugurated in Seoul in February with a pledge to get tougher on the North. Pyongyang has cut off government-level contacts with the South in retaliation.