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IAEA team returning to North Korea

SEOUL — U.N. nuclear inspectors will travel to North Korea on Tuesday to discuss the modalities of a promised shutdown of Pyongyang's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced yesterday.

The facility is at the center of the North's nuclear weapons program.

The announcement came a day after North Korea said the IAEA delegation's visit was on hold because it had not received the $25 million in frozen funds whose release was a condition for fulfilling a Feb. 13 nuclear disarmament deal.

The impasse ended yesterday when a Russian government official was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the money would be transferred into a North Korean account on Russian soil by Monday.

"I am pleased to inform you that our team will be leaving on Sunday and arrive in Pyongyang on Tuesday," Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna, Austria, adding that his No. 2 man, Olli Heinonen, would head the U.N. delegation.

"We should be able to start a long and complex process for working out with the DPRK the modalities of shutting down the installation at Yongbyon," he said, using the abbreviation for North Korea's official name — the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"I believe the process goes in the right direction," he said.

The visit, at Pyongyang's invitation, will be the first to North Korea by IAEA inspectors since they were ousted by the communist country's leader Kim Jong-Il in late 2002.

Meanwhile in Seoul, after returning from a surprise overnight visit to North Korea, Undersecretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy on the North Korean denuclearization process, said yesterday that he was pleased with the results of his trip to the reclusive communist state.

His comments also indicated that Pyongyang could become a stop on his travels around the region, raising hopes of a growing trust between him and his North Korean counterpart.

Mr. Hill also said yesterday he expects Pyongyang to shut down its nuclear reactor in about three weeks.

"Predictions are hard in this business, but I think what will happen is next week the international inspectors will come in," Mr. Hill told CNN in an interview yesterday from Seoul, during a regional tour. "Then I think within the week after that, or within two weeks of that, I think we can expect a shutdown of this facility," the chief negotiator said. "When it does, it will be a good day.

"The DPRK indicated that they are prepared to promptly shut down the Yongbyon facility, as called for in the February agreement," Mr. Hill said.

Calling talks "detailed and substantive," he said he and Northern officials discussed the "various elements we expect to sequence" in the denuclearization process. He also said he had discussed the issue of Japanese abductees.

Mr. Hill said he was "buoyed by a sense of achievement" but "burdened by the realization ... that it will take a great deal of work" to achieve North Korean denuclearization.

Most analysts expect the first phase — the shutdown of the North"s Yongbyon reactor — to be much easier than the second phase, in which the North is obliged to disclose all its nuclear programs. The disclosure presumably would clear up doubts over whether North Korea, in addition to the plutonium-based program at Yongbyon, is also secretly enriching uranium.

The implementation of the Feb. 13 multilateral denuclearization agreement has been held up by a failure to resolve a dispute over North Korean funds held in a Macau Bank.

Mr. Hill"s visit was praised by South Korea"s chief nuclear negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, who said it would "add momentum." Mr. Chun expected six-party nuclear talks to reconvene in early July, followed by a meeting of six-party foreign ministers "at an appropriate time."

The trip by the U.S. negotiator to meet his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang, outside the six-party talks venue, may indicate an increasing rapport between the two key men in a process in which a lack of bilateral trust has been cited as a major obstacle.

"My purpose in going was to respond to my six-party talks colleague Kim Kye-gwan's request that I come for discussions," Mr. Hill said.

Mr. Hill makes regular tours of the region to discuss progress — or lack thereof — in the six-party nuclear talks in affected capitals, but this was his first trip to Pyongyang. The U.S. side turned down a similar invitation from Pyongyang last year.

The last Pyongyang visit by a senior U.S. official was by Mr. Hill"s predecessor, James Kelly, in 2002. Then, Mr. Kelly"s team accused the North of a secret uranium-based nuclear program, triggering a crisis that culminated in Pyongyang"s detonation of a nuclear device last October.

In a reversal of an earlier American position not to negotiate with North Korea outside multilateral formats, Mr. Hill met Mr. Kim in Berlin in January. Pundits ascribe the breakthrough six-party Feb. 13 agreement to the bilateral, closed-door Berlin meeting.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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