The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)agreed yesterday to send monitors to North Korea to verify a shutdown of its atomic bomb program, launching what is likely to be a long and arduous disarmament process.
It would be the first IAEA mission in the country since it expelled IAEA inspectors in 2002 after Washington accused it of a clandestine effort to refine nuclear fuel.
Clearance for IAEA monitors to fly into North Korea was expected once Pyongyang receives a first batch of fuel later this week, pledged as part of its February disarmament accord with the United States and four other powers.
South Korea said a ship carrying the fuel would leave on Thursday on a voyage likely to take two days.
In a special session, the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors approved by consensus the return of nuclear monitors to North Korea 10 days after senior IAEA and North Korean officials agreed ground rules for verifying the halt.
Diplomats said nine monitors would install security cameras and place seals on infrastructure in Yongbyon, including its 5 megawatt reactor where North Korea has produced plutonium, leading to its first test nuclear explosion last October.
IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei said the IAEA expected to get monitors into North Korea "within the next week or two".
"Shutting down the facilities according to our experts will not take much time - probably a few days," he told reporters.
"But then we have to have other equipment in place to ensure we are able to monitor the (shutdown), so these activities are going to happen in the next couple of weeks."
IAEA diplomats said at least two monitors would remain on site indefinitely while North Korea and five powers - the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea - negotiate further steps towards denuclearization.
But getting Pyongyang to go beyond a freeze to an elimination of its nuclear capability and its plutonium stockpile is seen as a much tougher challenge. "This is the beginning of (what is) going to be a long and complex process," ElBaradei cautioned.
After throwing out UN inspectors in 2002, Pyongyang quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which the IAEA enforces. In 2005, Pyongyang declared it had nuclear arms, and unnerved the world with a test-detonation a year later.
The IAEA verification task is only an "ad hoc arrangement", not a normal, full-fledged inspections regime. That would have to be negotiated later as part of a new Safeguards Agreement to bring Pyongyang back into the NPT.
(China Daily via agencies July 10, 2007)