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IAEA experts in North Korea

Print edition : Jul 13, 2007 T+T-
IAEA Director-General Olli Heinonen (centre) with the IAEA's nuclear inspectors upon arrival in Pyongyang on June 26.-AP

IAEA Director-General Olli Heinonen (centre) with the IAEA's nuclear inspectors upon arrival in Pyongyang on June 26.-AP

THE Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has once again seized the initiative to try and set the agenda for the pace and substance of nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula. If Pyongyang did so last October by detonating a nuclear device for the first time, DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il has now sought to dictate the agenda by re-engaging the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Experts of the IAEA set foot on DPRK soil in late June after a gap of nearly four and a half years. In calibrated moves in 2002, North Korea had expelled IAEA officials before beginning a process that culminated in the nuclear test. In a sense, the nuclear test signified Kim's strategic choice, which, in turn, prompted the United States to seek China's help, more urgently than at any time before, to resolve the issue peacefully. And, this led to the February 13 accord, popularly known as the disarmament-for-aid package, among six parties on the "initial" steps towards de-nuclearisation by the DPRK. Besides these three countries, the others in the six-party process are South Korea, Japan and Russia.

As part of the February 13 deal, the DPRK has to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility, believed to be the nerve centre of the weapons programme, and allow the IAEA to disable and dismantle the complex. Under the disarmament deal, North Korea is required to disclose all its nuclear-weapons plans and facilities. Several additional issues are to be negotiated in detail, including the status of North Korea's existing nuclear weapons and its stockpile of fissile material.

For Pyongyang, the goodies promised by its five negotiating partners, including a hesitant Japan with its special "concerns", will be energy and food supplies for the DPRK. Above all, Kim is looking for security guarantees, from the US and its allies, so that his "regime" and the DPRK could hope to live in an atmosphere of sovereignty.

It was in this tense political climate that a few IAEA officials, led by IAEA Director-General Olli Heinonen, visited the Yongbyon complex on June 28 and 29. Heinonen expressed satisfaction that the IAEA team was allowed to see all the facilities there, including the reprocessing plant and the 5 MWe power unit. Confirming that all these units remained operational, he emphasised that it was up to the six parties to discuss the way forward.

There was no mystery why the Yongbyon complex was functioning at the time of the IAEA team's visit. Soon after the February accord, the DPRK insisted that its financial dispute with the US should first be resolved before the Yongbyon complex could be shut down. The dispute related to the US action of getting frozen North Korea's funds in a Macau bank to the tune of $25 million. Washington argued that these funds were obtained through tainted transactions, but the DPRK wanted the money to be released in full to establish its legality. Finally, Washington buckled and let the bank release the entire amount in a layered transaction though institutions in the US and Russia.

The DPRK, encouraged by its "leverage" in engaging the US, allowed the IAEA team in for talks, as different from any professional inspection of the Yongbyon site. So, a view gaining currency in the Asia Pacific diplomatic circles is that the DPRK may now begin to bank on its bilateral access to the US for any realistic deal over the nuclear issue, even if the six-party process is not abandoned.

P.S. Suryanarayana