North Korea missed its deadline to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, as widely expected after Pyongyang refused to act until its funds in Macau were unfrozen. The failure led the chief US negotiator to explain that momentum has dropped from the efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff:
The deadline for North Korea to shut down it main nuclear reactor passed Saturday with no action taken by the communist country, leaving the top U.S. nuclear negotiator to surmise that the momentum had escaped disarmament talks.
Saturday’s missed deadline marked the latest setback for an agreement that when reached in February offered the prospect of disarming the world’s newest declared nuclear power. North Korea successfully exploded a nuclear bomb in October.
“We don’t have a lot of momentum right now. That is for sure,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters before meeting his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei.
The disarmament plan, reached after nearly four years of arduous negotiations, laid out a timetable for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs. The plan was unexpectedly disrupted by a dispute over frozen North Korean funds in a Macau bank that Washington said this past week was finally resolved.
The US did unfreeze the funds during the week after a long and complicated process finally ended. The Bush administration’s investigation had taken a life of its own and proved highly effective at pressuring Kim Jong-Il’s regime, but it also proved tougher to end than to begun. The North Koreans still say they have not confirmed the release, but they also say that they will meet their obligations under the agreement when they do.
Those involved knew all week that the DPRK could not possibly meet the deadline. It takes several days to safely scuttle a nuclear reactor. The process could take as long as a couple of weeks to verify its closure, which means we will have to push this out until the end of April. If the DPRK does not have Yongbyon shut down by that time, it means that Kim has pulled a $25 million three-card Monty on the US, Japan, and the other six-nation partners.
Hill makes clear that he has no patience beyond that. “Another month is not in my constitution,” he told reporters. Right now, though, the North Koreans have little incentive to move fast. It took the US longer than the 30 days it pledged to resolve the banking issue, and they can point to that slipped milestone as an excuse for their own. We can hold up the delivery of fuel oil, and probably will, but other than that we have as much leverage as momentum at this point.