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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
North Korea Reactor Shutdown Looms
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Paul Kerr

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials visited North Korea in late June, almost two weeks after Pyongyang agreed to finish implementing a February pledge to halt its nuclear reactor. Another meeting of six-party talks designed to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis may take place in July, but no firm date has been set.

An IAEA team led by Olli Heinonen, deputy director-general for safeguards, was scheduled to arrive June 26 in Pyongyang. North Korea invited the agency in a June 16 letter after a North Korean banking dispute moved toward resolution.

Heinonen told reporters June 23 that “[t]he purpose of the trip is…to negotiate details” about verifying and monitoring the shutdown of North Korea’s nuclear facilities located at Yongbyon, according to Reuters. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei held initial discussions with North Korea about the issue in March. (See ACT, April 2007.)

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill told reporters in Tokyo June 23 that North Korean officials indicated during a bilateral meeting in Pyongyang that the country would shut down its operating, graphite-moderated nuclear reactor within approximately three weeks.

Hill met with North Korean Vice Minister Kim Gye Gwan and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun during a June 21-22 visit to Pyongyang. The visit was the first by a U.S. official in Hill’s position since his predecessor, James Kelly, went to Pyongyang in October 2002. National Security Council official Victor Cha visited North Korea this past April.

A June 16 report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency said that Pyongyang invited the agency because “the process” of resolving the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia dispute had reached the “final phase.”

North Korea agreed in February to halt within 60 days the operation of the Yongbyon reactor and associated reprocessing facility, which is used to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel, as well as “invite back IAEA personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications.” But Pyongyang refused to shut down the facilities because it contended the bank issue had not been resolved.     

The Department of State argued in April that the matter had been resolved as the bank had “un-blocked” the relevant North Korean accounts earlier that month. But North Korea said a resolution requires that the funds first be transferred.

Subsequent difficulty in conducting that transaction delayed resolution of the issue. After several false starts, the funds were ultimately transferred to a Russian bank in which North Korea reportedly holds an account. The funds were transferred via the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank and the Bank of Russia. A June 25 North Korean Foreign Ministry statement acknowledged that the funds had been transferred, “thus settling the controversial issue.”

Since September 2005, the bank matter had been a persistent obstacle to progress in the six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, and South Korea. That month, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Banco Delta Asia as a “money laundering concern.” The bank subsequently froze North Korea’s accounts, and other financial institutions curtailed their dealings with Pyongyang. The United States has asserted that the bank provided financial services to North Korean government agencies and front companies engaged in illicit activities.

Next Steps

IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming told Arms Control Today June 25 that the agency expects its team “to come back with agreed modalities” for verifying the shutdown. The IAEA Board of Governors must approve these plans “because this is a special verification mission,” she said. Fleming also confirmed a June 23 Los Angeles Times report that another team of inspectors is likely to go to North Korea in about two weeks.

U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of resuming work on the remaining portions of the February agreement. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters June 22 that “we need to really get to the point where the rubber meets the road.”

For its part, North Korea says that it is now willing to implement the second phase of the February agreement, according to the June 25 Foreign Ministry statement.

North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities as part of the first phase of a two-step agreement that contains initial steps for implementing a September 2005 joint statement. Pyongyang pledged in the 2005 statement to abandon its nuclear weapons and “existing nuclear programs” in exchange for a series of political and economic incentives. (See ACT, October 2005.)

North Korea’s fulfillment of its shutdown pledge would allow the other parties to implement the remaining elements of the first phase of the February agreement.

For example, South Korea is to provide 50,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil to the country in exchange for the shutdown. South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon told reporters June 20 that “preparations are underway” to provide the fuel “similarly in time with” North Korea’s shutdown of its nuclear facilities and the return of IAEA inspectors, according to Agence France-Presse.

Hill told reporters June 25 that the United States hopes “to have a six-party meeting of some kind…probably in the second week of July.” He said that meeting would likely happen after the shutdown begins but did not say whether the meeting would happen before the shutdown is complete.

According to Hill, the meeting should focus on implementing the February agreement’s second phase, which is to include North Korea’s provision of “a complete declaration of all nuclear programs,” as well as the “disablement of all existing [North Korean] nuclear facilities.” In return, the other parties are to provide “economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance up to the equivalent” of an additional 950,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil.

Hill told reporters June 18 that the United States envisions the second phase taking place “in the latter part of this calendar year.” Regarding the disablement of the reactor, Hill asserted that the task could be completed within “several days, a couple of weeks at the most.” But he acknowledged a week later that the parties have not yet determined precisely how the reactor is to be disabled.

The February agreement also calls for a meeting of the six parties’ foreign ministers once the first phase is implemented. Such a meeting would likely take place in late July or early August, Hill said.

Hill argued during a June 19 press briefing that five working groups tasked with formulating specific plans for implementing the remaining portions of the September 2005 statement should resume their work. But a State Department official told Arms Control Today June 25 that the timing of those meetings had not yet been decided.