North Korea told the US on 14 July that it had shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and readmitted a permanent international inspection team, completing its first step toward reversing a four-year-long confrontation with the US during which the North has made fuel for a small but potent arsenal of nuclear weapons.
North Korea sent the announcement through the country’s small mission to the UN, according to Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state who negotiated the accord to close the reactor that was agreed to in February. The reactor shutdown comes nine months after North Korea conducted a nuclear test, but it is unclear whether the country has mastered the ability to deliver or sell a working nuclear weapon.
The North Korean claim, which was carefully synchronized with the arrival of a first shipment of fuel oil from South Korea, can be easily verified by the 10-member inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, though communications are slow from the bleak, heavily guarded nuclear site at Yongbyon, roughly 60 miles north of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
Loaded with equipment, the inspectors arrived on 14 July to begin supervising what is envisioned as a lengthy disarmament plan, and to rebuild a surveillance system that was dismantled when they were expelled four years ago. American spy satellites will also be able to detect whether the reactor core is cooling; confirmation could take several days.
The next critical steps required under the accord, Mr. Hill has said, could take until the end of the year. North Korea, in return for large shipments of additional fuel oil, is to permanently disable the reactor so that it can no longer produce plutonium for additional nuclear weapons. Before it reaches that step North Korea is supposed to issue a complete declaration of all of its nuclear assets — including how many weapons it may have produced since it expelled inspectors in 2003.
“Declaration is one of the early next steps,” Mr. Hill said in Tokyo before the notification of the shutdown. “We would expect a comprehensive list, declaration, to be in a matter of several weeks, possibly a couple of months. We see it as coming before disabling of the facilities.”
He cautioned that the shutdown was “just the first step.” Verifying the declaration will be difficult, because for now the inspectors are limited to the Yongbyon complex.
Still, for President Bush the announcement is a rare diplomatic victory for an administration besieged on many fronts. In recent weeks the rising Congressional demands for a date to begin the withdrawal from Iraq, the struggle to keep Al Qaeda and the Taliban from expanding new footholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an expanding nuclear challenge from Iran and revived tensions with Moscow has created a sense in Washington and around the world that Mr. Bush is seriously weakened.
But the shutdown of the reactor and the return of the inspectors will allow Mr. Bush to argue that his five-year strategy of rejecting the North’s calls for bilateral talks and insisting on negotiations that included North Korea’s neighbours — China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — is finally bearing fruit.
Though critical and long-awaited, the reactor shutdown may also be the easiest achievement. It essentially restores the status quo that existed in 2002 — except that now North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium fuel for eight or more weapons, in addition to the one or two it is believed to have manufactured when Mr. Bush’s father was in office.
The challenge now, which experts believe will be far more difficult, is to convince North Korea to reveal and disgorge its arsenal. Almost all of that was produced starting in 2003, while the United States was distracted by the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.
The February accord commits North Korea to eventually ridding itself of that fuel or the weapons it may have been turned into. But it sets no deadlines, and getting the North to take those steps will require a second negotiation.
“I could imagine that the next steps could extend beyond this administration,” William J. Perry, a former defense secretary under President Clinton, said in an interview in his office at Stanford University on Friday. “And the North Koreans will demand a pretty high price for that.”
The initial North Korean steps may also give some additional leverage in Washington to Mr. Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as they try to reverse some of positions that the administration took in the first term, when some, including Vice President Dick Cheney, refused to negotiate with the country and looked for ways to speed the demise of Mr. Kim’s government.
Mr. Hill and Ms. Rice quietly dropped the American insistence that North Korea would not be rewarded for reversing the steps it took in 2003, when it expelled the inspectors, increased the production of bomb material and withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
To lure Kim Jong-il, the North’s reclusive leader, to return to the status quo of 2002, Ms. Rice and Mr. Hill worked around Mr. Cheney to strike the February deal, which awarded the North large shipments of oil as it took the first steps to end its nuclear production capacity.
The US also cleared the way for the return of $25 million frozen in a Macao bank that the administration had said was largely North Korea’s ill-gotten gains from counterfeiting and arms sales. In the end, the only way to return the money involved sending it through the Federal Reserve, which played a crucial role in getting it back to the North Korean leadership. That process took months longer than expected, and North Korea refused to shut the reactor until it was completed.
The administration’s critics also noted that the February accord bore a strong resemblance to the 1994 accord between North Korea and the Clinton administration that Ms. Rice had denounced in Mr. Bush’s first term as an ill-conceived giveaway, and that hard-liners in the administration dismantled in 2003.
The divisions over North Korea policy ran so deep that some members of the Bush administration departed partly in protest. Among them was Robert G. Joseph, the assistant secretary of state for arms control and disarmament, who told Ms. Rice that he believed that the US was helping to prop up a regime that Mr. Bush had called evil.
Perhaps the most complex problem facing Mr. Hill and North Koreans in coming weeks will be to find a face-saving way for Mr. Kim to explain what he did with nuclear centrifuges and other equipment that North Korea is believed to have purchased from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear engineer.
Mr. Hill has also drawn up preliminary plans to open talks with the North over a formal treaty ending the Korean War. That has long been a demand of the North Koreans, and a treaty could begin to pave the way to lifting trade sanctions that the Bush administration has tried to tighten, in hopes of speeding the collapse of North Korea’s government.