North Korean Nuclear Facility Could Be Disabled Before 2008

By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor could be disabled and a peace mechanism for resolving the decades-old Korean conflict could be in place by the end of 2007, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill says.

Hill, who is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters in Washington June 25 that the coming weeks will be a “very important period” for the Six-Party Talks comprising North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States.

The ambassador and North Korean officials “discussed everything,” during Hill’s surprise June 22-23 visit to Pyongyang, North Korea, he said, adding there is now “a lot of work to do,” in the six-party process, including efforts to shut down North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility and prevent its production of additional plutonium.  (See related article.)

“[A]ssuming all goes well” in the June 26-29 visit to Pyongyang of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who have been invited to negotiate the terms for them to monitor North Korea’s shutdown of the Yongbyon facility, the shutdown would then proceed.  That likely would be followed by a meeting of six-party representatives “at some point during the week of July 10th,” Hill said.

North Korea’s shutdown of Yongbyon is part of the first phase of the February 13 agreement negotiated by the six countries to bring about the elimination of nuclear programs from the Korean Peninsula and the normalization of relations.  The process had been stalled until recently, pending the transfer of $25 million in frozen North Korean assets from Banco Delta Asia in Macao.  (See related article.)

Hill said the six-party meeting in the second week of July would be held to “plot the next set of initiatives after the shutdown of the complex and begin the process of sequencing additional economic assistance,” pledged by North Korea’s interlocutors.

Additionally, North Korea is expected to make a full declaration of its nuclear programs that would be abandoned, and disable the Yongbyon reactor “so that the reactor cannot be brought back on line without an enormous repair bill.”

Hill said the issue of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is the “key question” in its nuclear declaration.

“We know that they've made purchases that are entirely consistent with the highly enriched uranium program,” he said, adding “we need … not just some clarity but complete clarity. We need to know what this was all about and how far did they get.”

Without clarity on HEU, “we really don't have a declaration,” Hill said.

A ministerial-level meeting, which would include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts, is anticipated for late July, Hill said.

Once into the Yongbyon disablement phase, Hill added, North Korea, South Korea, China and the United States could “begin a peace process on the Korean Peninsula,” to resolve the Korean Conflict which became a full-scale military conflict among the four parties from 1950-1953.

He also said the six countries hope to create a Northeast Asia security process, “a means by which countries in the region can really talk to each other in a multilateral forum.”

In addition, Hill called for progress on bilateral working groups, including resolving the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

With so many items on the agenda, Hill acknowledged “we are really compressed for time right now.”

Looking ahead to 2008, Hill said he envisions dealing with “endgame issues,” such as North Korea’s abandonment of fissile material and nuclear weapons or explosive devices, thereby effecting the “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula.

“[A]ll of those things would lead to a final cross recognition or normalization in the region,” Hill said.

For more information on U.S. policy, see Limiting Nuclear Weapons and The U.S. and the Korean Peninsula.