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(2nd LD) U.S. welcomes N.K. step on IAEA invitation, says reactor shutdown would take time

All Headlines 04:07 June 19, 2007

(ATTN: AMENDS headline, COMBINES with story slugged "Rice-North Korea," ADDS more comments by Secretary Rice, details, by-line)
By Lee Dong-min

WASHINGTON, June 18 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday welcomed North Korea's invitation of international nuclear inspectors back into the country, a key component in a deal aimed at denuclearizing the communist nation.

"It is indeed a good step that is... about to take place, and we expect North Korea to carry through with its obligations," she said at a news conference.

But Rice emphasized that this was only the beginning, that North Korea still needed to show it has made the "strategic decision" to give up its nuclear weapons.

"I said this was the first quarter," the secretary said, using an analogy from American football. "We are still there."

"We will expect the North Koreans to carry out their obligations... if they are carried out, (it) would mean that they've taken a strategic choice to shut down this program," she said.

In a first concrete step toward denuclearization, North Korea sent a letter over the weekend inviting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a U.N. nuclear watchdog, to Pyongyang to discuss the suspension of its nuclear facilities.

The agency said it hopes to send a delegation sometime next week.

North Korea had expelled the IAEA inspectors in late 2002 following a confrontation with the U.S., which accused Pyongyang of running a secret uranium program. The fallout led the North to restart plutonium production, which intelligence estimates say now amount to some 50 kg of fissile weapons-grade material.

An IAEA working-level team is expected to draft a memorandum of understanding with North Korea on how the IAEA would seal the facilities and monitor the shutdown. It would submit the memorandum for approval to the agency's board of governors, after which the inspectors would go in.

The U.S. and its allies in the six-party talks want the process expedited, eager to implement a Feb. 13 denuclearization agreement. The deal was endorsed by South and North Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

Chun Yung-woo, South Korea's top nuclear envoy, said the decision was now up to Pyongyang on how fast it will complete the shutdown.

"It is a matter of North Korea's political will if there are no technical difficulties," he said after talks in Seoul with his U.S. counterpart, Christopher Hill.

Hill told reporters, "We are talking about weeks, not months."

An unnamed North Korean diplomat, quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax from Beijing, said the reactor shutdown could take place sometime in the latter half of July.

"According to our specialists, halting the reactor technically requires about a month," the diplomat said.

"Hence, we expect to seal it, in accordance with agreements achieved during the six-party talks, in the second half of July 2007."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack left the technical questions to the IAEA, but said a proper reactor shutdown would require time.

"It's not just a matter of hitting the off switches," he said, and the process involves "getting in place all the seals and monitoring equipment and monitoring regime to make sure that everybody is comfortable with it."

"It's not something that can be done immediately," he said.

Months have already been lost in implementing the Feb. 13 agreement, under which North Korea was supposed to close down the reactor and bring back IAEA inspectors by an initial 60-day deadline of April 14.

North Korea insisted on first obtaining its US$25 million from a Macau bank, which seized the funds after the U.S. accused it of laundering money for the Pyongyang regime.

In a multi-party negotiated settlement, the money has been transferred out of Macau through the U.S. to Russia, and it is expected to be deposited into North Korean accounts soon.

"I think we are coming around the clubhouse turn on this one," McCormack said.

The reactor closure and the IAEA's return are first-phase steps in the Feb. 13 agreement, The second phase requires North Korea to declare all its nuclear stockpile and facilities, followed by outside verification.


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