Pyongyang agreed to take the first step -- shutting down the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon -- under a deal it reached two months ago with the other members in the so-called six-party talks: China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. As an inducement, the United States agreed to first free North Korean money that it had asked to be frozen in a Chinese bank account. Washington says the money's now available, but there's been no word from Pyongyang on whether it will reciprocate.
Bill Richardson, the governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico who led a delegation to North Korea this week, says he's optimistic that the government of Kim Jong Il will meet the deadline on shutting down the Yongbyon reactor, now that the frozen money has been released.
Analyst William Hartung says if North Korea meets the deadline for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor, other countries may begin doing business with it.
When Will Inspectors Return?
"The North Korean government told us that with that [bank] issue resolved, [it] would move promptly, within a day, after receiving the funds and, therefore, within that day, invite the IAEA to Pyongyang and inspectors to draw up the terms for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor," Richardson said in Seoul, South Korea, on April 11.
Richardson was speaking to journalists after his four-day mission to Pyongyang, where he received the remains of four U.S. servicemen killed during the Korean War.
Richardson said Pyongyang may invite nuclear inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) back to North Korea as early as April 14-15.
Bu there's been no word from Kim's government. As of April 12, the United States has heard nothing from North Korea on its promise to shut down the reactor, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
South Korea's nuclear negotiator, Chun Young-woo, said such a delay isn't uncommon in the North, and he said he expected word within a few days.
William Hartung -- a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York who has written widely on weapons proliferation -- reads nothing particularly sinister into the delay.
"I don't think there's a cultural issue necessarily involved, but I do think it mirrors the way this particular regime has operated in the past," Hartung told RFE/RL. "But I do think there's been progress: When the six parties have met their own commitments, North Korea has often gone along. So I would hope that this request is not a part of more diplomatic gamesmanship because this is not really the time for that."
There's also the question of the money, which had been frozen at the Banco Delta Asia in the Chinese territory of Macau. It amounts to $25 million, a small sum for any government in the 21st century.
Hartung says the money is symbolic, merely part of a reciprocal deal it has with the United States, which froze the funds as punishment for Pyongyang's suspected complicity in counterfeiting U.S. currency.
IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei visited Pyongyang in March (epa)
"I think for North Korea, the $25 million is not so much an economic concern, but I think it's partly symbolic and it's partly a confidence-building measure," Hartung said. "The agreement that's been worked out is based on step-by-step measures taken by each side, and so I think the North Koreans are saying, 'Well, if you don't take the step that you've agreed to, which is certainly much smaller, we're not going to take the step that we've agreed to' -- which is much more important: the suspension of their [nuclear] program."
The history of negotiations with North Korea has been tortuous and full of setbacks.
Back in 1994, North Korea made a deal with the United States under which it promised to shut down its nuclear reactor, which could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, in exchange for a civilian light-water reactor and economic aid from Washington. But in 2002, Pyongyang announced it had resumed its nuclear program. It subsequently expelled IAEA inspectors and said it had managed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Since then, North Korea has been involved in a standoff with four of its neighbors and the United States, who are trying to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In the meantime, it has been virtually isolated from international trade.
Now, Hartung says if North Korea meets the deadline for shutting down the Yongbyon reactor, other countries may begin doing business with it.
"If North Korea meets this initial commitment, other countries may be willing to begin economic relations of the sort that haven't existed before," Hartung said. "South Korea had been doing that until recent difficulties, and I think other countries might follow suit. But I think there'll be a waiting period. I don't think one action is going to be enough to open the doors. But if North Korea shows that it's willing to meet this step-by-step program that's laid out in the agreement, then I think some trade and assistance may flow from that."
Hartung says he has no illusions about the difficulties ahead. But ultimately he believes the nuclear issue will be resolved because there's so much at stake.