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(News Focus) N. Korea invites IAEA on an open-ended journey to denuclearization

All Headlines 15:48 June 18, 2007

By Byun Duk-kun

SEOUL, June 18 (Yonhap) -- After nearly a two-month delay, North Korea has invited inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss verifying the North's suspension of nuclear operations at Yongbyon, but observers say the inspectors' trip could be open-ended.

In a report carried by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on Saturday, Ri Je-son, director-general of the North's General Department of Atomic Energy, said he has invited a working-level group of the IAEA to verify and monitor "the suspension of the operations of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon."

The U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed the invitation Sunday, while U.S. and South Korean negotiators in nuclear disarmament talks with the North expressed hope that an inspection team would arrive in the communist nation by the end of the week.

The North's invitation of IAEA inspectors is part of a six-nation agreement signed in February, under which Pyongyang promised to shut down and seal the Yongbyon complex, the site of the North's only operational nuclear reactor, a 5-megawatt graphite-moderated reactor.

Under the February agreement, also signed by South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia, North Korea would also close down its radiochemical laboratory, a facility for testing and reprocessing of radioactive chemicals, a nuclear fuel rod fabrication plant and a storage facility for fuel rods at Yongbyon.

The Yongbyon site is also the home of a larger, partially constructed 50-megawatt reactor, which North Korea agreed to shut down and seal in the February agreement, but Seoul officials have said the other four facilities - radiochemical laboratory, test facility for radioactive chemicals, rod fabrication plant and rod storage facility - are what they are really interested in shutting down.

"Once the North shuts down the graphite-moderated reactor and the fuel rod fabrication plant, it will no longer be able to produce plutonium and that is what we are interested in," an official closely involved in the six-nation nuclear talks told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Officials here believe the shutdown of the Yongbyon complex will soon take place as agreed. Pyongyang has repeatedly reaffirmed its willingness to implement the measures scheduled for the first 60 days in the Feb. 13 agreement immediately after its funds previously frozen at a Macau bank were released.

The North's US$25 million at Macau's Banco Delta Asia were released late last week and routed to a North Korean account in a Russian bank. Whether the money has arrived yet has not been confirmed, but the head of the North's nuclear agency said his country believes the banking issue "has reached its final phase."

The shutdown of the nuclear facilities would be the most significant progress since the nuclear disarmament talks with Pyongyang began early in 2003.

Nuclear negotiators and other officials have said what takes place after the shutdown is the disablement and the eventual dismantlement of the North's nuclear facilities and programs.

Few, however, are willing to estimate how long the next phase will take, or whether it will ever take place.

In the February agreement, North Korea agreed to disable the Yongbyon facilities and submit a complete list of all its nuclear programs to the IAEA.

That step would let the U.N. nuclear watchdog and the other countries in the six-nation talks know what North Korea has and what needs to be done to remove the existing facilities, nuclear materials and programs.

Whether North Korea would actually agree to dismantle the programs depends on future negotiations.

Another potentially time-consuming issue could arise, exacerbated by the lack of trust between Pyongyang and Washington, the main antagonists in the nuclear negotiations.

The United States believes the North has a uranium enrichment program aimed at producing weapons, an accusation North Korea has consistently denied since the outset of the nuclear dispute in late 2002.

Washington believes the North possesses more than 50 kilograms of plutonium, enough to make 10 to 12 nuclear weapons.

Few believe Pyongyang would be completely honest in declaring its plutonium stockpile, let alone give it up.


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