Experts arrive in Yongbyon Sunday

… and the disabling of North Korea’s nuclear facilities in Yongbyon is due to start Monday, according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who is the American point man on the matter.

The Agence France Press reported Saturday that a nine-member team of U.S. experts will at least observe at least the start of the process, which is expected to take until the end of the year.

AFP said that “North Korea, which tested an atomic weapon in October 2006, has agreed to start disabling its plutonium-producing plants under a six-nation accord which also requires it to declare all nuclear programmes”. And, the AFP report noted, Hill said that “The idea of disablement is to create a situation where it is very difficult to bring those facilities back on line and certainly a very expensive and difficult prospect of ever bringing them back on line.”

This is key to an accord negotiated last February in Six-Party talks (North and South Korea, China, U.S., Japan and Russia) by which humanitarian and fuel aid will begin to flow to the DPRK. A lengthy delay was caused by difficulties in untangling U.S. financial sanctions imposed on North Korea, suspected of money laundering and producing counterfeit U.S. dollar bills.

The AFP added that “If the North goes on next year to dismantle the plants and give up its plutonium and weapons, it can expect normalised relations with Washington and a peace pact to replace the armistice which ended the 1950-1953 Korean War. North Korea also wants to be taken off a US list of state sponsors of terrorism, but Hill said Pyongyang would first have to satisfy Washington that it was not engaged in any terrorism-related activities. ‘They (North Korea) have to address the terrorism concerns that put them on the list in the first place’, said Hill”.

Apparently, Hill clarified at a news conference with journalists in Tokyo on Saturday, there has been a pledge of non-prolifieration from North Korea — but that is not enough: it must now also detail any past proliferation activities, including reported assistance to Syria in building a nuclear reactor that was reportedly “disabled” before going on-line by an Israeli airstrike on 6 September that the U.S. at least knew about in advance, if it did not actively assist.

The AFP wrote that Hill said “We have received assurances that they will not transfer (nuclear technology). On the other hand we have to be vigilant about this and we have to be really continuing to watch closely areas of concern, areas of the world where we have our concerns, including in Syria.” The AFP report can be found here.

Reuters news agency has reported on the same Hill press conference in Tokyo, and adds as background that “U.S. officials estimate the North has about 50 kg (110 lb) of plutonium. Proliferation experts say that is enough for six to eight bombs …North Korea has agreed to fully disclose all its atomic activities by the end of the year, and Hill confirmed that during his visit in Tokyo. ‘So by the end of the year … we hope to have arrived at an important milestone where there is a complete disablement of the Yongbyon facilities’, he said. ‘Where there is a full list of additional facilities which also need to be disabled, and the uranium enrichment matter is also resolved to mutual satisfaction’ … Experts say that though the disablement steps are reversible, it would prevent North Korea from going back to producing any more plutonium for about a year… We came up with a list of measures … we believe, make sure even if today or even if on a certain day the North Koreans wanted to restart the plutonium — which by the way will be a very bad day for all of us — that it would take them well over a year to do that’. The steps, however, are short of outright destruction. The North is required to provide a complete accounting of its fissile material and nuclear arms program by the end of this year under the deal it reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Hills told NHK public broadcaster in an interview that North Korea had to make clear it had not supplied nuclear know-how to Syria. ‘Now they’ve (North Korea) made a pledge that there will be no transfer … But we’re not just interested in pledges here, we’re interested in verifying that, in fact, there is no such proliferation going on’ … Separately, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said on Saturday that Hill’s North Korean counterpart indicated that Pyongyang would include a suspected uranium enrichment program in the declaration of its nuclear programs that must be submitted at the year-end. Kyodo said Kim Kye-gwan, who met Hill on Wednesday, was speaking to reporters in Beijing.” The Reuters report can be found here.

The Associated Press adds that Hill said that he expects Monday to be “…a very big day ” because it’s the first time that North Korea is “actually going to start disabling its nuclear program.” AP added that “Hill said the U.S. hoped to disable the North’s uranium enrichment program by the end of the year, not just its plutonium-production facilities at Yongbyon. ‘By the end of the year, on the road to denuclearization, we hope to have arrived at an important milestone, where there is a complete disablement of the Yongbyon facilities, a full list of additional facilities for disablement, and that uranium enrichment is also resolved to mutual satisfaction’, Hill said. Hill said he hoped to start talks with North Korea in the next weeks over the list of facilities — another promise made by the regime under a Feb. 13 agreement — and that it should include programs other than the ones at Yongbyon, as well as nuclear materials”.

AP added that Hill said at Saturday’s news conference that “U.S. lawyers had begun working with Pyongyang to remove the communist regime from Washington’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism. ‘They’re on the list for a reason because they’ve been supporting terrorism in some respect. So we’ve gotten the DPRK to talk to U.S. lawyers about what they have to do’, Hill said. He added that U.S. would not strike North Korea from the list — or form diplomatic ties — without the regime’s full denuclearization”. The AP report is posted here.

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