Oil Is Shipped to North Korea Under Nuclear Shutdown Pact

NY Times

A South Korean ship loaded with 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil left for North Korea on Thursday under an agreement intended to end the North’s nuclear program.

The United Nations’ chief nuclear inspector said the North was expected to begin shutting down its main nuclear facilities early next week, after four and a half years of operation, during which time enough plutonium was thought to have been produced to make several atomic bombs.

The ship is expected to arrive at Sonbong, a port in northeastern North Korea, on Saturday, the same day a team of inspectors from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency is scheduled to arrive in the North to monitor and verify the shutdown.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the atomic agency, told reporters in Seoul that shutting down five nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, 62 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital, would not be difficult and should be completed “within maybe a month or so.” His agency and North Korea have already agreed on the procedures.

The shutdown would be significant because it would halt the North’s only declared program for producing fuel that can be used in nuclear weapons. The five facilities to be frozen in Yongbyon, including the country’s sole operating nuclear reactor and a radiochemical laboratory, can yield more than 13 pounds of plutonium a year, enough for one atomic bomb, according to experts.

But the steps to be taken after the initial freeze of the nuclear program remain “very much open questions,” Dr. ElBaradei said. Those include whether North Korea will provide the agency with a complete inventory of its nuclear materials, and when it might return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

“It’s going to be a very long process,” he said. “It’s going to be a complicated process. How smoothly the rest of the operation will go very much depends on how progress will be made in six-party talks.”

Chief envoys to the six-nation nuclear talks will meet in Beijing next Wednesday and Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. The envoys, gathering for the first talks since March, were expected to discuss moves beyond the reactor shutdown.

North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyon facilities in a February agreement with the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. The deal called for shipping 50,000 tons of fuel oil to North Korea, and South Korea volunteered.

It plans to complete shipping the oil by early August, starting with the installment on Thursday.

North Korea indicated last week that it would undertake the long-delayed shutdown after the first shipment arrived.

When United Nations inspectors return to Yongbyon, they will face the same problems they had faced there before they were expelled in late 2002. They will put in seals, install cameras and leave monitors to ensure that the facilities remain shut. But they will not be allowed to collect samples or access North Korean data, much less travel around the country, to determine how much nuclear material North Korea has produced in Yongbyon or elsewhere.

The five-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon began operating in the mid-1980s. When suspicions about North Korea’s nuclear activities emerged in the early 1990s, a key dispute was how much plutonium had been produced at Yongbyon until then — 90 grams, about 3 ounces, as North Korea reported to the I.A.E.A., or up to 10 kilograms, about 22 pounds, as the agency suspected.

The dispute has never been resolved, although North Korea agreed to suspend operations at Yongbyon in an agreement with the United States in 1994. The accord collapsed in late 2002, when North Korea expelled the United Nations inspectors and restarted the Yongbyon operation.

North Korea has since claimed to have taken spent fuel unloaded from the reactor and reprocessed it into plutonium. Last October, it conducted its first nuclear test.

“It remains an unanswered question: how much plutonium has North Korea so far produced?” said Lee Un-chul, a nuclear scientist at Seoul National University. “North Korea won’t easily give up its operational data.”


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