North Korea seemed ready Friday to take a first
step toward scaling back its nuclear weapons program, perhaps this weekend, as
U.N. inspectors prepared to monitor the shutdown of its sole operating atomic
Members of the International Atomic
Energy Agency's (IAEA) inspection team arrive at Beijing airport Friday,
July 13, 2007. Nine IAEA experts arrived in Beijing for a stopover of less
than one day before a scheduled flight to Pyongyang on Saturday morning,
to supervise the shutdown of the plutonium-producing nuclear reactor that
is the key component of the reclusive communist nation's atomic weapons
The team from the International Atomic Energy Agency stopped in Beijing en
route to the North, with its Saturday arrival in Pyongyang scheduled just hours
after a South Korean oil shipment was to enter a North Korean port ¡ª a promised
reward for the reactor shutdown pledge.
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 last week that once it got the oil shipment, it would consider halting its
reactor for the first time in five years.
North Korea did not, however, give any timetable for starting the shutdown.
The tanker was due to arrive Saturday morning, and officials said it would take
48 hours to pump out its load of 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil.
But U.N. officials expressed optimism that North Korean officials were ready
to go forward with the shutdown of the plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon,
about 60 miles northeast of the capital.
"With the kind of help which we (have received) from the (North) in the past
few weeks, we think we will do our job in a successful way," IAEA team chief
Adel Tolba said in Beijing.
North Korea's military, meanwhile, proposed direct talks with the U.S. on
forging a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula. The proposal was noteworthy
because it appeared to go beyond simple administrative talks on the 1953
cease-fire that ended the Korean War.
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey suggested the idea was both
premature and outside the framework for the nuclear talks already agreed on. "We
have a channel and mechanism for discussing a variety of issues with North Korea
through the six-party process," he said.
North Korea agreed earlier this year to scrap its nuclear weapons program in
exchange for economic aid and political concessions in a deal with the United
States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
Those nations promised to give the impoverished North 50,000 tons of oil for
shutting the Yongbyon reactor. It will get total energy aid equivalent to 1
million tons of oil if it disables all nuclear facilities.
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.
Since then, North Korea has occasionally shut down the reactor to remove fuel
rods and extract plutonium ¡ª and is believed to have harvested enough to
construct at least a dozen atomic bombs.
Demonstrating its nuclear power, 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 a move that could be easily reversed, as it
was in 2002.
But the main U.S. envoy on North Korea said Friday that Washington hoped to
quickly move beyond the mere freeze of the reactor and dismantle the program by
"Where we would like to be at the end of the year is with the Yongbyon
facility disabled," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill 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.
Just getting to the shutdown required the U.S. 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.
More hurdles lie ahead, with the North required to declare all its nuclear
programs and materials. It has never publicly admitted running the alleged
uranium enrichment program that sparked the nuclear crisis and would need to
find a face-saving way to do so if the accusation was true.
The regime also has not specifically said when it could give up its already
built nuclear bombs or indicated what reward it would expect for doing