U.N. nuclear inspectors arrived in North Korea on Tuesday to discuss the hard-line regime's plans to make good on a long-delayed promise to shut down its main nuclear facility.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Olli Heinonen told reporters at the airport in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, that his delegation would be "negotiating arrangements for verification of the shutdown and sealing" of the North's main reactor during the five-day trip.
"They are the ones who shut it down and not us. So they have to make their own plans. How long it will take, it depends a little bit on them. They set the details, which we are going to discuss," he said.
The North Korean government vowed Monday to move forward with a February agreement to shut down its plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor in exchange for aid, after announcing that a dispute over frozen bank funds that had held up disarmament efforts was finally over.
The tightly guarded Yongbyon complex is about 60 miles outside Pyongyang. It includes a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor and a laboratory for reprocessing spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium. At a news conference in Washington on Monday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said the complex could be out of commission by the end of the year.
"What we're looking for in terms of shutting down this reactor or shutting down this complex in Yongbyon is just the first step of many steps," Hill said.
Hill, the administration's point man on the North Korean nuclear issue, was in Pyongyang last week on the first visit there by a senior U.S. official in five years. Hill said the North Korean nuclear disarmament talks could reconvene next month to chart the way forward.
By next year, Hill said, the talks could focus on an "end game," including North Korea's complete nuclear disarmament and a peace process for the Korean Peninsula.
Xu Wenji, a North Korea expert at Northeast China's Jilin University, said a lot could go wrong before then.
"The outlook for the future depends on each step that is taken now," he said. "It's action for action. If one side fails to do its part, then the next step can't proceed."
The process has been stalled for two months over the issue of $25 million in frozen North Korean assets. Pyongyang confirmed receipt of that money Monday.
Experts said North Korea's real intentions won't be immediately clear. Even after disabling Yongbyon, North Korea still has to declare how many nuclear weapons it has built, and how much plutonium it has stockpiled.
Hill said that on his trip last week, Pyongyang did not admit to the highly enriched uranium, or HEU, program that Washington suspects it has.
"Well, when the HEU program has come up, the North Koreans have said that they understand this is an important issue that needs to be resolved to mutual satisfaction, whatever that means," he said.
While some observers said Hill's visit was a welcome sign of flexibility, hard-line critics have called it appeasement. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton said Hill's trip was poor diplomacy, which he said showed that the State Department was desperate for signs of success.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press