Global Policy Forum

UN Tries to Verify North Korea Claims


By David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun

International Herald Tribune
July 15, 2007

United Nations inspectors checked the main North Korean nuclear complex Sunday to verify an announcement that the weapons-making facility there had been shut down, as the United States and South Korea welcomed the North Korean move as a significant step toward dismantling the regime's nuclear weapons program. The North Korean government told the United States on Saturday that it had switched off its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, north of Pyongyang, shortly after a South Korean ship unloaded the first shipment of fuel aid in North Korea.

If verified by the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visiting the site Sunday, the shutdown of the reactor would mark a rare diplomatic achievement for the administration of President George W. Bush. It would effectively halt a North Korean nuclear weapons program that is believed to have produced a small arsenal of nuclear weapons during a four-year confrontation with the United States. "North Korea's shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and the return of an IAEA team to monitor and verify it have a significant meaning," said Cho Hee Yong, spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, referring to the nuclear agency. "It is the first step by North Korea to keep its promise of denuclearization," Cho said. The North Korean announcement, which was carefully synchronized with the arrival of the fuel oil from South Korea, should be easily verified by the 10-member team from the agency, though communications are slow from the bleak, heavily guarded nuclear site at Yongbyon.

The South Korean ship delivered 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil, the first of 50,000 tons promised in February to the North in exchange for shutting down its reactor in a deal that will eventually give it one million tons of oil and other financial and political concessions.

The inspectors, loaded with equipment, arrived in North Korea on Saturday to begin supervising what is envisioned as a lengthy disarmament plan and to rebuild a surveillance system that was dismantled when they were expelled four years ago. U.S. spy satellites will also be able to detect whether the reactor core is cooling, although that confirmation could take several days.

Christopher Hill, the top U.S. envoy on North Korean issues, said the inspectors were expected to dispatch their first reports on the Yongbyon facilities shortly. "I think we have every reason to believe they have started the shutdown," Hill said in Tokyo before leaving for Seoul on a regional tour. Hill is scheduled to attend six-nation nuclear talks that resume Wednesday in Beijing. Delegates there are expected to press North Korea to declare all its nuclear assets, including its uranium enrichment program and the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal. "Declaration is one of the early next steps," Hill said. "We would expect a comprehensive list, declaration, to be in a matter of several weeks, possibly a couple of months. We see it as coming before disabling of the facilities." Hill cautioned that the shutdown was "just the first step." Verifying the declaration will be difficult, because for now the inspectors are limited to the Yongbyon complex.

The shutdown of the reactor and the return of the inspectors will allow Bush to argue that his five-year strategy of rejecting North Korean calls for bilateral talks and insisting on negotiations that included neighbors of North Korea - China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - is finally bearing fruit. The reactor shutdown essentially restores the status quo that existed in 2002 - except that now North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium fuel for eight or more weapons, in addition to the one or two it is believed to have manufactured when the elder George Bush was president.

The initial North Korean steps may also give some additional leverage in Washington to Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as they try to reverse some of the positions that the administration took in its first term, when some, including Vice President Dick Cheney, refused to negotiate with North Korea and looked for ways to hasten the demise of the government of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. Hill and Rice quietly dropped the U.S. insistence that North Korea would not be rewarded for reversing the steps it took in 2003, when it expelled the inspectors, increased the production of bomb material and withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. To lure Kim to return to the status quo of 2002, Rice and Hill worked around Cheney to strike the deal.

The United States also cleared the way for the return of $25 million frozen in a Macao bank that the administration had said was largely ill-gotten gains by North Korea from counterfeiting and arms sales. In the end, the only way to return the money involved sending it through the U.S. Federal Reserve, which played a crucial role in getting it back to the North Korean leadership. That process took months longer than expected, and North Korea refused to shut the reactor until it was completed.

The accord commits North Korea to eventually ridding itself of its nuclear fuel or the weapons the fuel may have been turned into. But it sets no deadlines, and getting North Korea to take those steps will require subsequent negotiation. "I could imagine that the next steps could extend beyond this administration," William Perry, a Clinton administration defense secretary, who conducted talks with North Korea in the late 1990s, said in an interview in his office at Stanford University on Friday. "And the North Koreans will demand a pretty high price for that."

Critics of the Bush administration note that the February accord bore a strong resemblance to the 1994 agreement between North Korea and the Clinton administration that Rice had denounced in Bush's first term as a giveaway, and that hard-liners in the administration dismantled in 2003. The divisions over North Korea policy ran so deep that some members of the Bush administration departed partly in protest. Among them was Robert Joseph, the assistant secretary of state for arms control and disarmament, who told Rice that he believed that the United States was helping prop up a regime that Bush had called evil, one that locks up dissidents and whose people have starved.

Perhaps the most complex problem facing Hill and the North Koreans in coming weeks will be to find a face-saving way for Kim to explain what he did with nuclear centrifuges and other equipment that North Korea is believed to have bought from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer.

In 2002 the United States, in a fiery meeting in Pyongyang, charged that North Korea was cheating on the 1994 accord made by the Clinton administration and had bought the equipment to start a second uranium-based nuclear production line for nuclear arms. Later, U.S. intelligence agencies said that North Korea could be producing nuclear weapons by the middle of this decade. But the United States has never found a production plant. Earlier this year, the intelligence agencies admitted that they no longer had confidence in their own assessment that the North had assembled the equipment or was trying to enrich uranium.

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