Sunday, July 15, 2007

SEOUL — A North Korean diplomat said his country had shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor after receiving an initial shipment of oil aid and that U.N. inspectors would start verifying the closure today.

If confirmed by the U.N. inspection team, the shutdown would be the North’s first step in nearly five years toward denuclearization, after lengthy international talks.

“Immediately after the arrival of the first heavy fuel oil, the facilities were shut down, and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] personnel will verify that, maybe by now or from today in Korea,” Kim Myong-gil, minister at the North’s mission to the United Nations in New York, said by telephone.

The delivery yesterday of 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil from South Korea was the first of 50,000 tons promised to the North in exchange for shutting down its reactor in a deal with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Pyongyang eventually will get 1 million tons of oil and other financial and political concessions.

After tortuous negotiations and delays — during which the North argued its nuclear program was needed for self-defense — the reclusive regime said this month that it would consider halting its reactor after it received the oil shipment.

In Washington, the State Department said North Korea had told the United States hours after the oil arrived in port that the reactor had been shut down.

“We welcome this development and look forward to the verification and monitoring of this shutdown by the International Atomic Energy Agency team,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The 10-member IAEA team arrived in the North Korean capital yesterday afternoon. Team chief Adel Tolba said the inspectors would stay in North Korea as long as needed to complete their work at the Yongbyon plutonium-producing reactor, located about 60 miles northeast of Pyongyang.

“We are going directly to the nuclear site at Yongbyon,” Mr. Tolba told broadcaster APTN outside the airport.

Footage showed dozens of cardboard boxes being loaded onto two trucks. It was not immediately clear what they contained, but Mr. Tolba had said he and his colleagues were bringing 2,200 pounds of equipment for use during the trip.

After the IAEA team installs monitoring equipment, some experts will remain at Yongbyon to ensure the reactor stays shuttered, said a diplomat familiar with North Korea’s file at the IAEA.

“The IAEA plans to have a permanent presence there, with some experts remaining at the site continuously,” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity owing to the issue’s sensitivity.

Mr. Kim said the next steps would include the North’s declaring details of its nuclear program and disabling the facilities, but he said that would happen only if the U.S. took actions “in parallel,” including removing wider economic sanctions against North Korea and striking it from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.

“After the shutdown, then we will discuss about the economic sanctions lifting and removing of the terrorism list. All those things should be discussed and resolved,” Mr. Kim said.

The South Korean tanker No. 9 Han Chang arrived at the North’s northeastern port of Sonbong, a Unification Ministry official said. The South Korean official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

The six-party agreement eased a standoff that began in October 2002, when the U.S. said North Korean officials had admitted having a secret uranium-enrichment program. Washington said that program violated a 1994 agreement for the North’s disarmament, and, a month later, halted oil shipments under that deal.

The North reacted by expelling IAEA monitors, withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarting the reactor.

North Korea since then has shut down the reactor occasionally to remove fuel rods and extract plutonium. It is thought to have harvested enough for at least a dozen bombs.

The government set off an underground nuclear test explosion in October, leading to intensified international efforts to negotiate an end to its arms program.

The North was likely to term the shutdown simply a suspension of operations — which could be easily reversed.

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