North Korea announced that it has closed their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, an essential step in their nuclear disarmament that many had despaired of Kim Jong-Il ever taking. The closure follows the delivery of over 6,000 tons of fuel oil and the transfer of $25 million in previously frozen funds. The IAEA has sent its inspectors to the plant to verify its closure and to monitor its status:
After four years of off-and-on negotiations, North Korea said it began closing down its main nuclear reactor Saturday, shortly after receiving a first boatload of fuel oil aid.
The closure, if confirmed by U.N. inspectors, would mark the first concrete step in a carefully orchestrated denuclearization schedule that was agreed on in February, with the ultimate goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel and other economic aid, and increased diplomatic recognition.
More broadly, it constituted the first on-the-ground accomplishment of six-nation negotiations that have been grinding away with little progress since 2003 under Chinese sponsorship. The talks — including North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States and China — are likely to resume next week in Beijing to emphasize the parties’ resolve to carry out the rest of the February agreement and eventually create a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
If the IAEA confirms the shutdown, it will be the most significant step taken by the DPRK since they admitted to cheating on nuclear-weapons development in 2002. That caused the Bush administration to declare the 1994 Agreed Framework a dead letter and ended direct negotiations between the US and the Kim regime.
Instead, George Bush insisted on multilateral talks, a process which has come under heavy criticism over the last few years, even while the same critics attacked the adminstration for its supposed unilateralism in Iraq and the Middle East. This approach appears to have paid off, however. Bush’s engagement of China, with all of its economic and diplomatic leverage in Pyongyang, forced Kim to take the talks seriously. An angry China would create a disaster for Kim, as his nation already starves and can hardly afford to become even more economically isolated. After testing one nuclear device, apparently to save a little face — it turned out to be mostly a dud — Kim wound up capitulating his nuclear program in the talks.
Still, we’ve been down this road before with Kim. No one expected him to just walk away from his nukes in the same manner Moammar Ghaddafi did in Libya in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture. The closure of Yongbyon is very significant in this regard. If Kim wanted to continue manufacturing nukes, he’d need Yongbyon to produce the fissile material. Once that closure becomes permanent, which the IAEA will confirm through the destruction of the plant’s internal facilities, Kim will be out of the nuke manufacturing business — at least for plutonium-based weapons.
In other words, this is a good start, and a rather significant win for the US and the Bush administration. The highly-flawed Agreed Framework has been replaced by a system that requires verification and uses the pressure of China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia to enforce the agreement. If the rest of the process runs as smoothly, we may have defanged the DPRK and might even be on our way to opening up the last of the Stalinist regimes.