North Korea has invited inspectors to Pyongyang to start talks on the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear breeder plant that fuels their nuclear-weapons efforts. The move indicates that the Kim Jong-Il regime has been satisfied that their sequestered $25 million will soon be returned, and it could mark the start of a denuclearization program that will leave Iran more isolated than ever:
North Korea announced Saturday that it has invited U.N. inspectors to return for discussions on closing down its main nuclear reactor, suggesting the end of a long stalemate.
The announcement, on the official Korean Central News Agency, indicated that the tangle over $25 million in frozen North Korean funds is nearing an end and held out promise that international efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may be revived in the weeks ahead.
The chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, expressed hope the Chinese-sponsored denuclearization talks could start up again in July. He told reporters in Ulan Bator, where he attended a conference, that he will be visiting Beijing and other Asian capitals next week to discuss a new round of negotiations.
Transfer of the blocked funds to North Korea “has reached its final phase,” the North Korean agency said, and this opens the way for arrival of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to supervise “suspension of the operation of nuclear facilities” at Yongbyon. In a letter to its director, Mohamed El Baradei, the IAEA was invited to send in a working-level team to make the arrangements, the agency added. It did not specify when they would be expected to travel to North Korea.
This announcement comes on the heels of another snag involving the money. The release of the funds turned into a complicated process in order to avoid money-laundering charges. Macau transferred the funds to Russia instead of directly to North Korea, with the blessing of the US. Russia, however, held the funds pending explicit guarantees that the US would not retaliate against Russia for transferring the funds to North Korea. At least so far, they have not transferred the money to the Russian commercial bank that services the Kim regime.
Apparently, though, the move from Macau to Russia has given Kim enough assurance to proceed with the agreement reached in February. Once the money hits the account and the other five parties to the talks give North Korea 50,000 tons of fuel oil, Kim will start shutting down Yongbyon. This may start as soon as next month, when the nations involved start final negotiations on the inspection team and the scuttling process for Yongbyon.
Granted, events could overtake this step — that’s been the entire experience of the North Korean engagement. However, this is as close as we have come to a verifiable shutdown of Kim’s main nuclear resource. If it succeeds, we will have only Iran left as a rogue nation pursuing nuclear weapons, and the Iranians will have one less resource to use for their progress.