N. Korea Shutters Nuclear Facility

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 15, 2007

BEIJING, July 15 -- After four years of off-and-on negotiations, North Korea said it began closing down its main nuclear reactor Saturday, shortly after receiving a first boatload of fuel oil aid.

The closure, if confirmed by U.N. inspectors, would mark the first concrete step in a carefully orchestrated denuclearization schedule that was agreed on in February, with the ultimate goal of dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel and other economic aid, and increased diplomatic recognition.

More broadly, it constituted the first on-the-ground accomplishment of six-nation negotiations that have been grinding away with little progress since 2003 under Chinese sponsorship. The talks -- including North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States and China -- are likely to resume next week in Beijing to emphasize the parties' resolve to carry out the rest of the February agreement and eventually create a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

"We welcome this development and look forward to the verification and monitoring of this shutdown by the International Atomic Energy Agency team," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, referring to a 10-member team of U.N. inspectors who flew into North Korea earlier Saturday.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, warned reporters in Japan, where he was visiting in anticipation of the new talks, that moving forward into further denuclearization would probably prove as difficult as the previous four years of discussions. Given the track record, which includes several North Korean walkouts and long standoffs, some Asian and U.S. analysts have questioned whether North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has genuinely made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons after so many years devoted to developing them.

The next steps, as outlined in the accord, would be for North Korea to permanently disable the reactor, a plutonium facility at Yongbyon, 60 miles northeast of Pyongyang, the capital, and to reveal the full extent of the nuclear weapons, nuclear processing plants and stored nuclear material it has accumulated. That would include an accounting of any uranium enrichment efforts, which North Korea denies it has undertaken but which the Bush administration says have been part of the country's nuclear research.

Uranium aside, U.S. intelligence estimates have said North Korea has extracted enough plutonium from the Yongbyon facility to build as many as a dozen bombs, although it is not known how many weapons the reclusive Stalinist nation's military has put together. Last October, while the talks were again stalled, North Korea announced it had conducted its first underground nuclear test and henceforth should be considered a nuclear-armed state.

Kim's government has based much of its power on the military, and possession of nuclear weapons has been described in North Korean propaganda as a matter of national pride. But the thought of nuclear weapons in the hands of Kim and his aides has unsettled his Asian neighbors, including China. As a result, they have persisted in the six-party negotiations despite repeated delays and abrupt changes of position by North Korean diplomats.

North Korea's decision to go ahead with the Yongbyon closure, for instance, came only after nearly two years of wrangling over about $25 million in North Korean accounts blocked in a Macau bank.

The funds were frozen because of U.S. Treasury Department allegations in September 2005 that they were tainted by money laundering and counterfeiting. After months of insisting the Treasury accusations were a law enforcement matter separate from the nuclear talks, the Bush administration switched positions and promised to get the money liberated, leading to February's milestone agreement. But several months more passed while Hill struggled to find a banking system that would handle the allegedly tainted money. Ultimately, the funds were transferred out of Macau via the Federal Reserve Bank of New York into the Russian banking system and, from there, transferred into North Korean accounts in a Russian trading bank near the border with North Korea

Diplomats from the six nations have suggested that, should they be successful, the North Korean nuclear negotiations could eventually evolve into a permanent forum for East Asian security cooperation, bringing North Korea into a closer relationship with its neighbors. But as Hill did in Japan on Saturday, they acknowledge they have a long road ahead before anything like that is possible.

Saturday's announcement, while widely applauded, essentially returned the East Asian landscape to what it was in 2002, when operations had been suspended at the Yongbyon reactor under an earlier deal put together in 1994 under the Clinton administration.

U.S. diplomats said in 2002 that North Korean representatives acknowledged a secret uranium enrichment program -- something North Korea has steadfastly denied since then -- and the Bush administration stopped the oil shipments that were part of the 1994 deal. In return, North Korea expelled U.N. weapons inspectors, quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted operations at Yongbyon.

The North Korean government had made no formal announcement by early Sunday. But a diplomat at the North Korean U.N. mission, Kim Myon Gil, told the Associated Press that the reactor was shut down Saturday and its closure would soon be verified by the U.N. inspectors. The State Department said in Washington that it got official word from North Korea shortly after a South Korean ship pulled into Sonbong, a port in northeast North Korea, with a cargo of 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil to power generators in the rickety North Korean electricity grid."

The delivery represented a down payment on a scheduled 50,000 tons of fuel oil aid in return for shutting down the reactor. In all, the February accord promised North Korea up to 1 million tons of oil and other economic aid as it takes further denuclearization steps over the months ahead.

The accord also held out the prospect of improved relations with the United States, which has long been a goal of North Korea. In signing the accord, for instance, the Bush administration undertook to review whether it could remove North Korea from the list of countries said to sponsor terrorism and to engage in diplomatic discussions aimed at dissipating the hostility that remains more than half a century after the Korean War.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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