BEIJING – North Korea vowed Monday to move forward with its pledge to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for aid, as U.N. monitors prepared to visit the communist nation to discuss how to verify the long-delayed shutdown.
The North also announced Monday that a dispute over funds frozen that had held up disarmament efforts was now over, and confirmed that it would hold talks with officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency starting Tuesday.
How to verify that North Korea is taking its plutonium-producing Yongbyong reactor offline will dominate the agenda for the five-day IAEA visit, the agency's deputy director for safeguards said during a stop-over in Beijing.
"Now we are going to go to negotiate the details: how to verify and make sure the reactors will be shut down at Yongbyon," Olli Heinonen told reporters upon arrival at Beijing's International Airport.
However, he said he was unsure whether he would have a chance to actually visit the Yongbyon site.
Still, the visit fueled optimism that Pyongyang finally was ready to move forward with its disarmament commitments.
North Korea, which expelled U.N. inspectors in late 2002, announced last week that it invited a "working-level delegation" to discuss procedures for shutting down the plutonium-producing facility.
North Korea had pledged in February to shut down the Yongbyon reactor, its main processing facility, and IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei traveled to North Korea in March in what was billed as a landmark visit.
But Pyongyang refused to act on the promise until it received about US$25 million in funds that were frozen in a Macau bank amid a dispute with the U.S. over alleged money-laundering.
On Monday, North Korea announced that the banking dispute had been resolved.
The North's Foreign Ministry said that disputed funds "have finally been transferred according to our demand," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
The ministry also said it would start implementing the February disarmament accord, in which it promised to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for economic and political concessions. It also confirmed that the country will hold talks with the U.N. nuclear watchdog starting Tuesday.
U.S. officials have been saying since earlier this month that the financial obstacle had been overcome, but North Korea's statement Monday was the country's first confirmation that the money transfer was finished and that the matter was fully wrapped up.
The funds were freed earlier this year, but only last week started to be transferred to a North Korean account at a Russian bank. Russia said the disputed funds arrived on Saturday. A statement posted on the Web site of Dalkombank, based in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, said the funds transfer had been completed Monday.
The ministry also said it would start implementing a February disarmament accord, in which it promised to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for economic and political concessions. It also confirmed that the country will hold talks with the U.N. nuclear watchdog starting Tuesday.
Heinonen said before departing Europe that his delegation's trip was a "subsequent step forward" from ElBaradei's visit.
Heinonen's trip will come on the heels of a visit to North Korea by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top U.S. nuclear negotiator with the communist regime.
After a two-day visit to North Korea, Hill said Saturday in Japan that the Yongbyon reactor would be shut after the IAEA and the North agree on how to monitor the process.
"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 said.
Japan's top government spokesman said Monday the resumption of IAEA inspections would be "an important step toward the denuclearization of North Korea" and said he hoped Heinonen would have substantive discussions in Pyongyang on the issue.
"It is important that substantive discussions will be carried out on the issue of IAEA inspection," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said at a press conference.