Beijing (AFP) Jul 19, 2007
North Korea is willing to disable all its nuclear facilities this year, a top negotiator said Wednesday, just hours after UN experts confirmed that Pyongyang had shut down its main reactor complex. The developments raised hopes that an international deal to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes in exchange for aid was bearing fruit after years of on-again, off-again talks.
As envoys re-opened six-nation negotiations in the Chinese capital, the North said it was willing to declare and disable all its nuclear facilities by the end of the year in line with a February disarmament deal, South Korea said.
"North Korea showed its willingness to declare and disable (its nuclear facilities) within the shortest period of time, within this year, or five to six months," South Korean envoy Chun Yung-Woo told reporters.
The US envoy to the talks, Christopher Hill, was more circumspect but also said that Wednesday's talks had gone well.
"I don't want to get into too many specifics on that but there were good and positive discussions," Hill said when asked to confirm Chun's comments.
Hill went into Wednesday's talks calling for North Korea to declare and disable all of its nuclear facilities by the end of the year.
Earlier Wednesday, the head of the UN atomic watchdog said his inspectors, who were only allowed back into the secretive North to resume their work days ago, had confirmed that the North had closed its main reactor complex.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei said all five facilities at the Yongbyon reactor site, which were capable of producing bomb-making plutonium, were now offline.
"We have verified that all five nuclear facilities have been shut down and that appropriate measures have been put in place, including sealing some of these facilities," he said during a visit to Malaysia.
Although the February deal called for the return of the UN inspectors, the team did not resume work until Saturday because North Korea insisted it would first have to get hold of frozen funds and an initial shipment of fuel aid.
It received both in recent weeks.
Under the agreement, North Korea -- which tested an atom bomb late last year -- would eventually abandon all of its nuclear programmes in return for a wide range of economic, diplomatic and security incentives.
No one outside of North Korea is exactly sure about the extent of the hermit nation's atomic weapons programme.
The United States, for instance, says that North Korea has secretly been operating a highly enriched uranium programme. Highly enriched uranium is used to make nuclear bombs.
North Korea has also never made public how much plutonium it has made at the Yongbyon site.
Japanese chief negotiator Kenichiro Sasae told reporters after the group meeting that North Korea had indicated it was willing to declare and disable all of its nuclear programmes.
"I have the impression that they are prepared to discuss the next step, having implemented the first step," Sasae said, but he emphasised that no definitive deal had been struck.
Hill said he expected China to release a statement that would clarify North Korea's position following the end of the two-day session of talks on Thursday.
"Tomorrow the chairman's statement will release a lot of the details in terms of the timetable going forward," he said.
The six nations involved in the talks, which began in 2003, are China, the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan.
earlier related report
The closures, part of a landmark agreement in February aimed at getting the secretive state to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes, were confirmed by inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"We have verified that all five nuclear facilities have been shut down and that appropriate measures have been put in place, including sealing some of these facilities," IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said on a visit to Malaysia.
"We expect that in the next few weeks we will continue to apply the necessary monitoring and verification measures," he said, adding that cameras were being installed for monitoring.
The five sites at North Korea's main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which manufactured plutonium that could be used to make atomic bombs, include a 1960s-era reactor that is not thought to have ever produced plutonium.
ElBaradei said shutting and sealing the facilities was only the first step in a very long and complicated process.
He also urged North Korea to be transparent about its nuclear weapons programme as it worked towards denuclearisation.
"We still have a long way to go. We still have to work with the North Koreans about the history of the production of these facilities, but that would be part of North Korea providing us with an inventory of nuclear materials," he said.
"What we have done in shutting down these five facilities is a very good positive step, but it's a very first step in a long road to travel."
But the IAEA confirmation will give an added push to the new round of six-nation talks opening later Wednesday in Beijing, where negotiators will get to work on the next phase of the February 13 deal on disarming North Korea.
Top US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill said in Beijing on Tuesday, after meeting the communist state's chief envoy, that no major obstacles currently impeded the drive to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons programme.
Hill held a series of bilateral meetings with North Korea's Kim Kye-Gwan ahead of the six-party talks.
The reactor shutdown is the North's first step since 2002 towards ending its nuclear programme, which culminated in an atomic bomb test last October.
The United States, South Korea and Japan -- parties to the six-nation talks with the North, China and Russia -- had expressed caution over the shutdown, saying it did not mean Pyongyang would easily give up its nuclear weapons.
ElBaradei said last week in Seoul there are five declared nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Pyongyang, so everything is shut down now at that site.
The five-megawatt reactor, whose fuel rods produced all the plutonium for the nuclear weapons and which was shut down Saturday, is thought to be the country's only working reactor.
There is also a 50-megawatt reactor still under construction; a Soviet-supplied 8-megawatt research reactor dating back to the 1960s which is not believed ever to have produced plutonium; a plutonium reprocessing plant about 600 feet long and several stories high; and a fuel fabrication and storage facility.
earlier related report
Many analysts and officials in Seoul expected more tangible progress to be made at this week's multilateral nuclear talks, describing the recent shutdown of the North's main nuclear reactor as a clear sign that Pyongyang is moving toward ending the years-long nuclear standoff, implementing a landmark disarmament deal reached in February.
Foreign Ministry officials here said the six-party nuclear negotiations opened in Beijing "in a better atmosphere than ever before."
Just ahead of the opening, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Chun Yung-woo, said full implementation of the Feb. 13 deal could be possible before the end of the year, noting that it largely depends on the "political will" of the North's top leadership.
U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill also said his country is pushing for achieving the disablement of the North's nuclear facilities within this year.
Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at Seoul's private Sejong Institute, expressed an optimistic view, saying both Pyongyang and Washington seem resolved to implement the Feb. 13 accord.
"The shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor is a significant progress as it would keep the North from producing more nuclear weapons," he said. Paik and other analysts say this week's nuclear talks would be crucial to carrying out the next phase of disarmament.
In an initial disarmament step under the Feb. 13 deal, North Korea has shut down a plutonium-producing 5-megawatt graphite-moderated reactor in Yongbyon and invited back U.N. nuclear inspectors, timed with the arrival of the first shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy oil promised in compensation for the reactor closure.
Seoul has so far shipped 13,700 tons of fuel oil. Seoul officials say total shipment of 50,000 tons would be completed early next month.
The six nations, which include China, Japan and Russia, have also created five working groups to handle specific issues, such as U.S.-North Korea relations, Japan-North Korea ties, peace and security in Northeast Asia, denuclearization and North Korean energy needs.
Under the second phase of the aid-for-disarmament deal, the North should declare and permanently disable all its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for an additional 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent. In addition to the 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon, the North has a "radiochemical laboratory," a facility where plutonium is extracted by reprocessing spent fuel rods removed from the reactor, partially constructed 50-megawatt reactor and 200-megawatt reactor.
The second phase also calls for a gathering of foreign ministers from the six countries and a separate forum to negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula, which would address the North's security fears.
Not a few analysts remain skeptical about Pyongyang's commitment to carrying through with the second-phrase obligations. They said the North was already forecast to implement the initial disarmament step because it has to shut down its aging Soviet-era reactor in return for massive energy aid.
The shutdown of the 5-megawatt reactor and other nuclear facilities would be no big loss to the North because it already has enough plutonium to make more nuclear weapons, they say. Furthermore, the country can turn the reactor back on and reprocess the spent fuel anytime.
The 5-megawatt reactor was frozen in 1994 after signing a deal with Washington in return for getting oil shipments and the promise of two nuclear reactors for generating electricity. But the North revived the reactor after the United States accused Pyongyang in late 2002 of running a secret uranium-enrichment program.
"The shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor is no more than the beginning of a long process of denuclearization," said Cheon Seong-whun, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korean Institute for National Unification. "It is uncertain that the next phase of disarmament would go smoothly," he said, warning against overly optimistic views on the nuclear standoff.
Cheon said Pyongyang's recent call for direct military talks with the United States -- excluding South Korea -- to discuss a peace settlement on the Korean peninsula indicates a rough road ahead on the North's disarmament.
The nuclear-armed North, he said, is expected to ask for mutual arms reductions that would also stipulate the reduction of the American nuclear arsenal and call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South.
Source: Agence France-Presse
Source: United Press International
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US Envoy Christopher Hill Upbeat About Six Party Talks But Others Cautious
Beijing (AFP) Jul 18, 2007
Top US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill said Tuesday that no major obstacles currently impeded the drive to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons programme after meeting the communist state's chief envoy. Hill held a series of bilateral meetings with North Korea's Kim Kye-Gwan ahead of a new round of six-nation talks, due Wednesday, on the denuclearisation drive.
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