After months of a diplomatic stalemate, North Korea is showing signs that it's ready to dismantle its nuclear program and has allowed United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into the country for the first time in five years.
On Thursday IAEA officials reported that they saw "all that we wanted to see" during a tour of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the source of the material used in North Korea's first nuclear test in October. It was the first such trip since the Pyongyang government expelled inspectors in 2002 and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty resulting in a diplomatic showdown with the US. Now North Korea has agreed to forgo its nuclear program in an aid-for-disarmament deal.
The Japanese Kyodo News reports that although Yongbyon was still operating, IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen said the delegation was "satisfied"and commended the normally secretive government's "excellent" cooperation.
"We went to the fuel fabrication plant, the radiochemical laboratory or reprocessing plant as it's called, then the 50-megawatt reactor which is under construction and then the 5 MW reactor. So all the places which we wanted to see, we saw."
"They are operating. It's not yet the point of shutdown, so that is still to come," he said.
Heinonen, whose team arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday to discuss with North Korea the shutting down, sealing and monitoring of facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, is scheduled to leave North Korea on Saturday.
An unidentified Foreign Ministry official told the South Korean Yonhap News Agency that "[t]he IAEA could announce the date (for the Yongbyon shutdown) as early as this week." North Korea's newfound openness will likely accelerate a six-party agreement between North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia.
The shutdown of the Yongbyon facility is the first step in the six-party agreement sealed on Feb. 13, in which the North also agreed to eventually disable its nuclear facilities and declare all its nuclear programs to the nuclear watchdog.
The IAEA has already begun planning its monitoring mission to watch over the closure of Yongbyon and has plans for a July 9 meeting to get approval, reports England's Daily Telegraph. The mission will be critical in providing North Korea with the agreed upon aid, which it will gradually receive as it completes the various phases of dismantling the nuclear facility.
Under the complicated February deal, international aid would be released for North Korea's flagging economy step-by-step in accordance with its moves to close its nuclear programme.
To get the full amount - energy supplies equivalent to one million tons of fuel oil, plus food aid - the North Korean regime must freeze Yongbyon, decommission it irrevocably and "deal with" all other aspects of its nuclear programme to the IAEA's satisfaction.
The Daily Yomiuri in Japan reported that former Director of the National Security Agency Bobby Inman said earlier attempts of North Korean disarmament had failed due to a lack of verification.
"The six-power talks, therefore, are particularly important for me," he said. "The involvement of China and Russia as partners in the agreement says at least we have the possibility...that China will supply the missing verification element." Japan, North and South Korea and the United States are the other four parties to the six-party talks.
Inman also said he was skeptical that Pyongyang will relinquish its nuclear weapons. "We may succeed in persuading them not to sustain the ability to build up more. My skepticism comes from the fact that I don't think any country that has actually got nuclear weapons has given them up," he said.
Following Thursday's inspection, US officials are optimistic. The Shanghai Daily News reports that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes that North Korea will move quickly to end its contentious nuclear program.
"We hope for now rapid progress given the beginning, we believe, of the North Korean efforts to meet their initial action obligations," Rice said, before meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon.
The communist nation had agreed to close the Yongbyon facility in April, but missed the deadline due to a dispute over $25 million frozen in a Macau bank. The US alleged that the money was from illicit weapons deals and money laundering operations. Reuters reports that, "[f]ollowing the release of the funds, North Korea agreed this week to implement the deal it struck with South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan in February."
An editorial in the Asia Times applauds US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill for finally talking North Korea into honoring their disarmament agreement. However, writer Ralph A. Cossa quips that North Korea had to be "bribed with their own money" to seal the deal.
True, the North Korean still had to be bribed to honor their promises - to the tune of US$25 million - but in a refreshing twist, this time they were bribed with their own money, tainted though it may have been, via the release of frozen assets from Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau. For this, US and South Korean taxpayers should be thankful.
Even if North Korea disarms, critics worry that it may distract observers from the nation's human rights abuses. A political cartoon in India's National Herald features Kim Jong-Il showing UN inspectors a "No nukes" sign while a prisoner is tortured in the background.