U.N. Monitors Assess N. Korea's Nuclear Facility

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U.N. nuclear inspectors arrived in North Korea, five years after Pyongyang expelled their colleagues. The inspectors are there to agree on a way to shut down North Korea's main nuclear facility. The process, which has been slow and difficult, is expected to get more complicated as it proceeds.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

United Nations nuclear inspectors arrived in Pyongyang today, four and a half years after their colleagues were expelled. The inspectors are in North Korea's capital to discuss the long-delayed plans to shut down the country's main nuclear reactor. Now, yesterday, North Korea pledged to move forward on the agreement which was reached months ago to close that plant.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the road ahead.

ANTHONY KUHN: The International Atomic Energy Agency's top nuclear inspector, Olli Heinonen, said his team plans to spend three days discussing with the North Koreans how to shut down their main nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The North Koreans, he said, will decide the schedule for the shutdown.

Mr. OLLI HEINONEN (Deputy Director, International Atomic Energy Agency): First of all, they are the ones who will shut it down and not us, so they have to make their own plans. And how long it will take, it depends (unintelligible) on them. So these are the details which we are going to discuss.

KUHN: The tightly guarded Yongbyon complex is about 60 miles outside the North Korean capital. It includes a five-megawatt nuclear reactor and a laboratory for reprocessing spent fuel rods into weapons grade plutonium.

At a press conference in Washington yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said these could be out of commission by year's end.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (Assistant Secretary of State): What we're looking for in terms of shutting down this reactor, shutting down this complex in Yongbyon, is just the first step of many steps. But if all goes well, we would hope that by the end of the calendar year '07 we will have the facility shut down and disabled.

KUHN: 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 that 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.

Shi Wen Ji(ph) is a North Korea expert at northeast China's Jilin University. He says a lot could go wrong before then.

Mr. SHI WEN JI(ph) (Jilin University): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The outlook for the future depends on each step that is taken now, he says. It's action for action. If one side fails to do it's 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 just confirmed receipt that money yesterday.

Experts say North Korea's real intentions won't be clear until later when it lays all its nuclear cards on the table. Even after disabling Yongbyon, North Korea still has to declare how many nuclear weapons it's already built and how much plutonium it's stockpiled.

Christopher Hill said that on this trip Pyongyang did not admit to the highly enriched uranium or HEU program that Washington suspects it has.

Mr. HILL: 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.

KUHN: While some observers say Hill's visit was a welcome sign of flexibility, hard-line critics are calling it appeasement. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton called Hill's trip poor diplomacy, which he said showed the State Department was desperate for signs of success.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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