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UN Nuclear Inspectors Leave Korea

A TV grab shows the nuclear facilities in Yongbyun.

A TV grab shows the nuclear facilities in Yongbyun.

(RFE/RL) -- The four-person team of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flew out of Pyongyang amid the sudden crumbling of years of work to end North Korea’s nuclear program.

Before leaving, the inspectors removed or incapacitated their monitoring devices used to assure that North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon does not produce nuclear-weapons material.

The departing IAEA inspectors will soon be followed by a team of U.S. nuclear experts, which had separately been monitoring North Korean progress in dismantling Yongbyon in line with a disarmament agreement in 2007.

"Our team on the ground is making preparations to leave," U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood announced on April 15. "We are discussing next steps on this matter with [North Korea]."

Once the U.S. team follows the IAEA inspectors out of the country, there will be no one left to assure North Korea does not restart its nuclear weapons program.

"It is a step backward," Wood said. "We are obviously concerned about this, but again, the North will have to deal with -- in taking these decisions, the North is going to have to deal with the consequences of such decisions, and you know it just brings, they just bring upon themselves further isolation from the international community.

On-Again, Off-Again Progress

North Korea said on April 14 that it would reactivate the plant in its Yongbyon nuclear complex that produces plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang also said it was ending its participation in the six-party talks intended to end the nuclear program in exchange for aid and trade incentives. The talks involve the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States.

Pyongyang, which is believed to have previously produced enough plutonium for several nuclear bombs, conducted a nuclear test in 2006.

The international community has sought for years to disarm North Korea of nuclear weapons in what has been a highly volatile and on-again, off again progress. But the now-complete reversal of that progress has come with lightening speed.

North Korea’s firing of a long-range missile on April 5 brought a Security Council condemnation on April 13 as a violation of a UN ban. The Security Council also demanded that existing sanctions against North Korea be fully enforced.

Pyongyang immediately responded by ordering on April 14 the expulsion of the international inspectors and refusing any further participation in the six-party disarmament process.

The question now is what kind of further pressure the UN might be able to exert on Pyongyang to bring it back to the bargaining table.

While Washington has moved quickly to identify North Korean firms associated with the missile program for sanctions enforcement, its Security Council partners Russia and China want to proceed cautiously.

China on April 16 repeated calls for "calm and restraint" from all sides.

And Russia's chief nuclear envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksei Borodavkin, said the "most important task" now is to resume the talks -- not to impose heavier sanctions.

The events of this week in many ways repeat an earlier breakdown of talks with North Korea in 2002. That breakdown came after Washington publicly stated Pyongyang had a secret uranium-enrichment program -- something North Korea had denied.

However, North Korea ultimately readmitted IAEA monitors in 2007 to verify its dismantling of Yongbyon under the six-party disarmament accord.

North Korea, which has destituted itself to maintain its military power, depends upon international assistance to feed its population.

That has always made the talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear program a delicate balance between the regime's military priorities and its economic needs.

For years, Pyongyang has see-sawed between these two poles. And that makes it extremely hard to predict whether it now will return soon to negotiations or opt, instead, for a new and prolonged period of isolation and standoff.