An invitation by North Korea to the International Atomic Energy Agency to talk about shutting down its lone nuclear reactor marks the first hopeful step in what may be an arduous process of getting the North to give up its entire program.
Even if IAEA inspectors verify the shutdown of the aging five-megawatt reactor at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, North Korea may be far from ready to come clean on all it's doing, analysts say.
The North Koreans "will be more cooperative," says Kim Kyu-ryoon, director of North-South Korean cooperation at the Korea Institute of National Unification, "but expectations have been lowered."
Mr. Kim says that a two-month delay in beginning to fulfill the first step of the six-nation agreement reached in Beijing on North Korea's nukes has blunted momentum while building "mistrust between the parties."
North Korea was to have shut down the reactor by April 14, 60 days after the signing on Feb. 13 of a six-nation agreement under which the North stands eventually to get billions of dollars in aid.
North Korea held back, however, demanding first the transfer of $25 million held in accounts in an obscure Asian bank. The bank had been blacklisted by the US for serving as a conduit for $100 "supernotes" counterfeited in Pyongyang.
Over the weekend, two days after Macao authorities reported the funds as having moved from Banco Delta Asia in Macao, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced North Korea's openness to receiving IAEA inspectors for the first time since expelling them at the end of 2002.
Ri Je-son, director-general in North Korea's General Department of Atomic Energy, had written the IAEA regarding "discussion of the procedures," said the KCNA report, for "suspension of the operation of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon under the Feb. 13 agreement."
KCNA said the letter had gone because the transfer was under way. The funds, under a deal engineered by the US State and Treasury departments, have moved from "BDA," as the bank is known, to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. From there they went to the Russian central bank, which has agreed to turn them over to North Korea.
Tough negotiations expected
Although North Korea may well shut down the reactor, analysts expect the negotiating process to get tougher as the US presses for details on its nuclear program, as called for in the deal. The US will also demand that North Korea get rid of its entire nuclear inventory, including six to 12 nuclear warheads believed to have been made at Yongbyon. "It will take more time to get data about the facilities," says Kim. "How specific the report will be is a question."
Both US and South Korean officials welcomed word of the invitation to the IAEA, though the US chief envoy, Christopher Hill, who touches down this week in Japan, China, and South Korea, says the North must reveal details of its program for building nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium.
"It's a welcome step," Mr. Hill said during a stop in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. "It's got to be followed by a number of other steps. But it is certainly a step without which we would not be able to make progress."
Hill added that South Korean officials had told him that Seoul was getting ready to send fuel oil to the North as part of the agreement.
N. Korea's 2002 revelation
It was the revelation of the North's program in 2002 that ultimately blew apart the 1994 Geneva agreement, under which North Korea had suspended its program for building nuclear warheads from plutonium at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. North Korea boasted of having resumed the program after the IAEA inspectors had left, but has repeatedly denied having anything to do with highly enriched uranium.
Mr. Hill, however, said recently that North Korea purchased the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium from Pakistan, and "they've got to abandon the program."
With settlement of "the BDA issue" and shutdown of the reactor, says Lee Kee-hong, Washington bureau chief of the newspaper Dong A Ilbo, "many people think the uranium program will be 10 times more difficult to resolve."
After North Korea shuts down the reactor, under IAEA supervision, Mr. Lee suggests that "nothing will happen in the Bush administration" – that is, until after January 2009, when a successor to President Bush is inaugurated.
Until then, analysts say that North Korea will bargain for rice and fertilizer shipments from South Korea and acceptance in the international finance system. South Korea suspended rice shipments pending shutdown of the reactor but has already promised to send 20,000 tons in emergency aid.
Paik Hak-soon, director of North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute, says North Korea is now likely to "demand financial talks with the US" – a step toward full diplomatic relations that North Korea would like.
Mr. Paik says that talks would "enhance North Korea's transparency" while the North fights for legitimacy in an international financial system that has shunned it ever since the US blacklisted Banco Delta Asia.
Kim Tae-woo, senior fellow at the Institute of Defense Analyses, affiliated with the South's defense ministry, sees the reactor shutdown as "not such a big deal." Rather, he says, "The big deal is the second stage, the disablement of the nuclear problem." North Korea, he posits, "will try to negotiate without giving up their nuclear weapons while demanding dialogue with the US."
Michael Breen, author of a biography of Kim Jong Il, says that a familiar stop-and-go pattern with no real ending in sight is possible. "We'll get some progress," he says, "and then there'll be another obstacle."
North Korea "is obligated to make some steps and then something will happen," he says. "There'll be an appearance of progress, and there'll be another obstacle."
In the end, says Mr. Breen, "I can't imagine they'll ever completely give up the nuclear option."