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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Small step on long road for N Korea
Yongbyon reactor
The closure of part of the Yongbyon site has been welcomed

As the international community welcomes the apparent shutdown of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant, Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter assesses the impact of the move.

The on-off North Korean nuclear 'crisis' - if that is the word for a slow-burn process that has smouldered fitfully, with the odd flare-up, for 15 years - has taken a step forward.

On 16 July the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that North Korea had finally started to shut down its five megawatt electric research reactor in its main known nuclear site at Yongbyon, some 100km north of the capital, Pyongyang.

The 13 February agreement reached at six-party talks in Beijing - which North Korea has belatedly begun to implement now that a row with the US about $25m frozen in a Macau bank has been resolved - also specifies closing a plutonium reprocessing facility there.

Yongbyon also boasts a far bigger reactor, thankfully incomplete - or the 'dear leader' (Kim Jong-il) would have even more bombs than the five or six he probably has - plus nuclear fuel rod fabrication and storage plants, and more.

Mohamed El Baradei, head of the IAEA, said he hoped to be able to report soon that "all five facilities have been shut down".

Deja vu

We have been here before - as has the IAEA. From 1995 to 2002 it had inspectors and monitoring equipment stationed at Yongbyon - to verify its closure under the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework (AF) signed by the Clinton administration.

Cooling pond at Yongbyon reactor
The US Congress has long warned of North Korea's nuclear ambitions

Attacked at the time by the newly Republican-controlled Congress for yielding too much and postponing awkward questions - like what happened to plutonium reprocessed before the IAEA first gained access to Yongbyon in 1992 - the AF created a consortium, whose other key members were South Korea and Japan, to build North Korea two new light water reactors (LWRs) less amenable to abuse for military ends.

Meanwhile the US funded 500,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil a year for Pyongyang as compensation - the tacit fiction being that Yongbyon was there to generate electricity.

Always a tad implausible, this deal was doomed once George W Bush succeeded Bill Clinton and discontinued most US engagement with what he sternly labelled the "axis of evil".

When Mr Bush finally sent a delegation to Pyongyang in 2002, it was to pick a fight.

The US accused North Korea of violating the AF with a covert second nuclear programme based on highly enriched uranium.

North Korea denied this, but things swiftly escalated.

Heavy fuel oil shipments were suspended. North Korea responded by expelling IAEA inspectors at the end of 2002 and restarting Yongbyon. In 2003 it became the first and so far only signatory state to quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Six parties, too late

With the US insisting on a multilateral process, six party talks - including both Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia - began in 2003.

Six party talks
Six party talks are due to resume on 18 July

They made little headway until September 2005, when a vague statement of principles was agreed.

At just that moment, bafflingly, Washington chose to harry North Korea on another front.

The US treasury department targeted Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau, forcing it to freeze $25m of probably (but unproven) mostly ill-gotten gains in North Korean accounts held there.

To no one's surprise, Kim Jong-il took umbrage. For a year Pyongyang boycotted the talks.

Last July it tested a long-range Taepodong missile, which failed.

Then in October, fatefully, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon - small, but successful enough to jolt a hitherto divided Bush administration into at last seeking serious engagement with North Korea.

That US U-turn produced February's six party accord, with its five working groups and tight timelines. Yongbyon was to close by 14 April.

It did not, because Kim Jong-il insisted on first having the Banco Delta Asia $25m returned in full.

And he got it, after the State Department overruled a furious Treasury - and found a way to deliver it, with banks still afraid of US reprisals.

So 13 years after the AF, here we go again. Three cheers are surely two too many.

De facto nuclear power

The IAEA has returned to bolt Yongbyon's stable door - but this time the nuclear horse has already bolted.

Fuel rods at Yongbyon
North Korean technology is outdated

Like much else in North Korea, Yongbyon is both ancient technology - similar to the UK's Windscale, built in the 1950s - and decrepit.

Closing it now is little loss, for its job is done. North Korea is a de facto nuclear power.

As much as Pyongyang tends to prevaricate, it has no reason not to play ball here.

But the next steps, and the ones after that, are full of potential pitfalls and sticking points.

Like the AF, February's six party accord kicks the difficult stuff down the road. Accurately entitled "Initial Actions for Implementation of the [September 2005] Joint Statement", it doesn't even raise anything so delicate as Pyongyang's nuclear weapons. That's for later.

Even so, the next phase of initial actions may not be smooth. There are several issues.

First, Yongbyon must go from mere closure - reversible, as in 2002 - to disablement in perpetuity.

As in the usefully ambiguous phrase deployed in the Northern Ireland peace process for IRA weapons to avoid any hint of surrender, it must be "put beyond use".

Pyongyang must also furnish a complete declaration of all its nuclear programmes - which raises the highly enriched uranium crux again.

The US now admits it is less sure how far this has got.

North Korea still denies its existence, but face may be saved if the components are declared as part of a civilian programme.

There are even rumours of the US quietly trying to buy this off.

In return, North Korea would get 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil - on top of the 50,000 now being sent for closing Yongbyon.

The US will also move faster on removing North Korea from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism, and ending longstanding economic sanctions - ever since the Korean War - under the Trading With The Enemy Act.

Peace, at last?

February's six party accord further provides that "the directly related parties will negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum".

Kim Jong Il
Will North Korean leader Kim Jong Il do "a Libya"?

North Korea has long sought a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice, which ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Technically, with no treaty, the peninsula is still at war.

But perversely Pyongyang has mostly portrayed this as a bilateral matter with the US, excluding South Korea and China.

It is still playing that game, as in 13 July's bizarre demand by the Korean People's Army (KPA) for direct talks with the US military.

The US riposte, of course, is that everything must be under the six party talks umbrella.

But this unsettling gambit is typical of North Korea, which likes to keep everyone else guessing.

Provided Kim Jong-il accepts the six party talks and multilateralism, all this looks feasible.

The US, in its new mood, has nothing to lose from ending sanctions, or even a peace treaty.

It will no doubt demand a high price for this - as will Kim Jong-il, every inch of the way.

In sum, immediate prospects for the six party talks, due to resume in Beijing on 18 July, look fair.

Highly enriched uranium, Yongbyon disablement, or a full nuclear declaration could all prove sticking points - if North Korea chooses to make them so.

But for now, arguably, the dear leader has little to lose by playing along. Finally, all his interlocutors - except a hardline but isolated Japan - are now keen to strike a deal.

Yet it would be a premature leap to assume North Korea is ready to "do a Libya" and surrender its nuclear weapons.

That lies much further down the road, if at all. As an apt Korean proverb says: Over the mountains are mountains.

For now, at least we have a process, which is better than no process. In that sense, process is progress - up to a point.

But the bottom line is that in 2007, no one is spoiling for a fight with North Korea any more - especially now that it has nukes.

Rather, it suits all concerned to talk up the process, perhaps beyond its real achievements.

So one cheer for Yongbyon's second, and hopefully final, shutdown. If only it had stayed shut the first time.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University

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