Monday, July 9, 2007

MUNICH (AP) — U.N. inspectors plan to return to North Korea in about a week to help the communist nation dismantle its nuclear program and re-establish a presence that ended when they were expelled five years ago, diplomats said yesterday.

The diplomats, speaking on the eve of a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board that is expected to approve the mission, emphasized that the dates being considered for the return — July 14 or July 17 — are tentative.

“They need to be confirmed by the North Koreans,” said one of the diplomats, speaking by telephone from Vienna, Austria, the headquarters of the IAEA. The diplomat demanded anonymity in exchange for talking about confidential issues.

Diplomats said the North Korea mission would cost close to $5 million over two years, with the main expenditures earmarked for mothballing the North’s plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear facility and post-shutdown monitoring.

The Vienna meeting will focus on a report based on the work of the IAEA’s deputy director general, Olli Heinonen, who visited the Yongbyon facility late last month.

The confidential report, obtained by the Associated Press, said North Korea has agreed to provide IAEA experts with needed technical information, access and other help needed to shut down the Yongbyon reactor and linked facilities.

Mr. Heinonen’s visit was the nuclear watchdog”s first trip to the Yongbyon reactor since inspectors were expelled from the country in late 2002.

Four months after test-exploding a nuclear bomb, North Korea pledged in February to shut down and disable the five-megawatt reactor, which is capable of producing enough plutonium to produce one nuclear bomb a year, in exchange for economic aid and political concessions. That agreement was the result of talks between North Korea and the United States, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan.

But the country refused for months to act on the promise until it received about $25 million in funds that were frozen in a Macao bank amid a dispute with the U.S. over money-laundering suspicions.

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