North Korean Reactor Shutdown a “Very Important First Step”

By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The shutdown of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor and the first delivery of supplies of heavy fuel oil to Pyongyang represent a “very important first step” toward the elimination of nuclear programs from the Korean Peninsula, but quicker progress in the next set of steps outlined in a multilateral agreement is needed, the Bush administration says.

Following his arrival in Seoul, South Korea, July 15, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill said it is important that the six parties involved - North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States - “work closely together and quickly together” on fulfilling their February 13 agreement so that the process can focus on “end game” issues in 2008.  (See related article.)

“[W]e have a lot of work to do … [and] a very important first step was taken, but we have many more steps to go,” Hill said, adding “if we don’t take these steps a little more quickly than we’ve taken that first step, then we are going to fall way behind again,” referring to the unexpectedly long amount of time it took to resolve the issue of seized North Korean funds at Macau’s Banco Delta Asia.

At the State Department July 16, spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration understands the Yongbyon reactor now has been shut down.  “[T]he IAEA has confirmed that, the North Koreans have confirmed that in public, and they have also conveyed that to us directly,” he said.

In return, he said North Korea’s partners in the Six-Party Talks had agreed to provide the country with 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.  “Six thousand tons of that have already been provided by South Korea to the North, and they are currently in discussions about the other 44,000 tons,” he said.

McCormack said the next phase, which involves the disabling of the Yongbyon reactor and a declaration by North Korea of its entire nuclear program, will be the focus of the July 18 envoy-level meeting in Beijing in which Hill will participate.

“I expect that's going to be a difficult phase … [because] you're getting to some fundamental issues and irreversibility issues in terms of disabling the reactor. And that is a step that North Korea has not yet taken,” he said.

In remarks at South Korea’s Ministry of Unification July 16, Hill praised China’s role in achieving the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor.  Along with drafting the September 2005 and February 13 agreements that have outlined the moves toward elimination of nuclear programs, “the Chinese … have played really an excellent role as chairman of the process.”

Outstanding issues remain between North Korea and the other Six-Party Talks participants, including North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens, its status on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the normalization of relations - including a formal end to the 1950-1953 Korean War.  (See related article.)

“I can tell you, though, that with complete denuclearization, everything is going to be possible,” Hill said.

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