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Inspectors Confirm North Korean Reactor Shutdown

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> Muhammad el-Baradei in Bangkok today (AFP) July 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The UN's nuclear agency says its inspectors have confirmed that North Korea has shut down its sole functioning nuclear reactor.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who arrived in North Korea on July 14, verified the shutdown.

Speaking in Thailand today, IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei called the confirmed shutdown "a good step in the right direction."

El-Baradei added: "We verified the shutdown of the [Yongbyon] reactor. We are going through verifying the shutdown of the other facilities [at Yongbyon], and by tomorrow or the day after tomorrow we will be able to report hopefully that all the five facilities have been shut down."

Shutdown Only First Step

Still, Yongbyon's shutdown is only an initial step in a long process that the international community hopes will lead to the denuclearization of North Korea. Pyongyang is believed to have already developed nuclear weapons.

The shutdown was a key step outlined in a groundbreaking agreement reached with North Korea in February. The agreement was reached through six-party talks that comprise the United States, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas, and China.

Pyongyang announced the shutdown on July 14 after receiving a first shipment of fuel oil from South Korea as part of compensation offered under the February deal.

Under the deal, Pyongyang is to receive in total some 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil.

South Korea sent a second shipment of oil today, but there's still a lot left to carry out for both sides to meet all the terms of their accord.

"Eventually, again, we will have to verify the correctness and completeness of the DPRK's [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] declaration of material and facilities," El-Baradei told reporters today. "Ultimately, also we will have to go and make sure that the nuclear-weapon arsenal of DPRK is dismantled. So it's a very positive step that we are taking this week, but there's still a long way to go."

Reading The North

The next steps in the February agreement involve North Korea declaring and detailing all its nuclear facilities and activities.

However, the deal appears to sidestep the issue of Pyongyang's military nuclear activities. That thorny detail, it seems, has been left to be dealt with at a later date, says North Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter of Britain's University of Leeds.

"As has often been the case when negotiating with North Korea -- maybe there's no other way -- the tough stuff is kicked down the road," Foster-Carter says. "And there's more stuff, too, because the North Koreans may interpret the deal slightly differently, and they'll keep raising new stuff. They sort of suddenly puzzled everybody last week by the North Korea military suddenly saying they wanted direct talks with the U.S. military, for instance. And everybody thought, 'What on Earth is that about?' And it isn't at all clear what that is about. So there's all sorts of stuff, and we'll just have to see if this North Korean mood of cooperation will last."

But this story has also been about cooperation from Washington. President George W. Bush in 2002 dubbed North Korea part of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and Iraq, and U.S. policy since then had excluded any kind of direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

But last month, in what "The New York Times" called a "sharp reversal of strategy," senior U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill visited North Korea -- the first visit to Pyongyang by such a senior U.S. envoy in nearly five years.

With North Korea now apparently cooperating, some analysts wonder if there could be a similar U.S. opening toward Iran. Washington has long shunned direct talks with Iran, which it believes is secretly developing nuclear arms. But could the Korean example provide a model for future U.S. concessions in exchange for Iranian cooperation on the nuclear issue?

Analyst Foster-Carter believes it’s at least conceivable. But for that to happen, he argues that what he calls“realists,” as opposed to “idealists” who seek sweeping regional change, would need to win the debate inside the Bush administration debate on Iran.

"The same general principal -- at least talk to ‘bad guys,’ find out what they want -- [could apply] also in the Middle East context," Foster-Carter says. "Of course, various people speculate that it might be in U.S. interests to have [Iran as] admittedly a rather hostile, but nonetheless Shi’a, non-Arab power as a counterweight to Sunni Arab powers. There are all sorts of strategic questions, if the U.S. were pursuing a strict national interest.”

For now, Washington looks set to continue the diplomatic route at least with North Korea. Six-party talks are scheduled to get under way again on July 18 in Beijing to map out the next phase of ending Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Battling Nuclear Proliferation

A nuclear-capable, short-range missile on display in Islamabad, Pakistan, in March (AFP)

IS PROLIFERATION INEVITABLE? On June 18, RFE/RL hosted a briefing featuring Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Sokolski discussed the challenges to the global nonproliferation regime and what Western countries can do to strengthen it.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
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