North Korea Close To Shutting Down Nuclear Reactor

June 23, 2007

North Korea could shut down its plutonium-producing reactor within three weeks, a top U.S. nuclear envoy said Saturday after returning from a rare visit to the reclusive country.

Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator at international talks on North Korea's nuclear programs, also said the next round of nuclear negotiations could begin in early July, before a full shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor.

Hill said the reactor would be closed after North Korea and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agree on how to monitor the process. U.N. inspectors are to arrive in North Korea on Tuesday.

"We do expect this to be soon, probably within three weeks ... though I don't want to be pinned down on precisely the date," Hill told reporters in Tokyo after briefing his Japanese counterpart, Kenichiro Sasae, on the outcome of his two-day surprise trip to the North Korean capital.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency described the talks as "comprehensive and productive" on Saturday.

The trip, the first by a high-ranking U.S. official since 2002, came amid growing optimism that North Korea may finally be ready to take concrete steps toward fulfilling a promise to dismantle its nuclear programs.

Last week, North Korea invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to discuss procedures for shutting down its Yongbyon reactor. The country expelled the U.N. nuclear inspectors in late 2002.

The IAEA announced Friday that a delegation led by Olli Heinonen, the agency's deputy director general for safeguards, would arrive in Pyongyang on Tuesday for a five-day visit.

Hill said he was happy that the team was set to go, but cautioned that halting the reactor was just a first step.

"Shutting down the reactor won't solve all our problems, but in order to solve our problems we need to make this beginning," he said.

North Korean officials told Hill during his visit that they were prepared to shut down Yongbyon as called for in a disarmament agreement reached in February, under which North Korea pledged to close the reactor and allow in U.N. inspectors in exchange for energy aid, including 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil.

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