PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea moved a step closer to fulfilling a promise to shutter its main nuclear reactor after agreeing with international monitors yesterday on how to verify a shutdown.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen announced the tentative deal after wrapping up a visit this week to the North, which included the U.N. nuclear watchdog's first trip to the Yongbyon reactor since inspectors were expelled from the country in 2002.
"We have concluded this understanding, what our monitoring and verification activities are in principle," Mr. Heinonen said in AP Television News footage from the capital, Pyongyang. He did not give details of the agreement.
The North Korean state press had no immediate comment.
The news is the latest positive sign in the past several weeks that the North is taking seriously a pledge it made in February to shut down and disable the 5-megawatt reactor, which can produce enough plutonium to churn out one nuclear bomb per year.
The country received promises of economic aid and political concessions from the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, its partners in the so-called six-party forum created in 2003.
The accord's initial phase calls for North Korea to shut the Yongbyon reactor and receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.
Efforts to halt the communist country's nuclear program took on added urgency after North Korea carried out its first atomic test explosion last October.
Implementation of the February accord, however, was delayed amid a financial dispute over North Korean funds frozen in a Macao bank due to U.S. accusations of money laundering and other wrongdoing.
Difficulties in resolving the issue led the North to ignore an April deadline to close the reactor. But after progress toward a solution, the North invited the inspectors back June 16.
A visit to the North last week by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill — Washington's point man in the nuclear talks — inspired confidence.
The financial dispute was declared resolved Monday, and the four-member IAEA group arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday to discuss how the agency would monitor and verify a shutdown.
Mr. Heinonen said his team, set to leave Pyongyang for Beijing today, was preparing to report to the IAEA board of governors within a week.
He said, however, that the agency would have no say in the shutdown's timing.
"This is for the six parties to decide," he said in the APTN footage. "You have to ask them the time scale. When they do [decide], we will be ready."
On Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she hoped for a swift shutdown.
"We hope for now rapid progress given the beginning, we believe, of the North Korean efforts to meet their initial action obligations," Miss Rice said.
An official at the IAEA's Vienna, Austria, headquarters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters, said a board meeting would likely take place July 9 with the 35 member nations expected to approve sending the first inspection team to the North as quickly as possible.
Mr. Heinonen, who emphasized all week that the trip was not a formal inspection, was upbeat yesterday after returning to Pyongyang from an overnight stay at Yongbyon, about 60 miles northeast of the capital.
"We visited all the places which we are planning to visit, and cooperation was excellent," Mr. Heinonen said in earlier APTN footage.
He said the facilities remain operational.
Along with the 5-megawatt facility at the Yongbyon Nuclear Center, the officials also saw an unfinished 50-megawatt reactor, the fuel fabrication plant and a reprocessing plant, Mr. Heinonen said. He said he thought five facilities at the complex would likely be closed.