SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Sunday it would resume taking apart its plutonium-producing nuclear plant and allow in inspectors in response to a U.S. decision to remove it from a terrorism blacklist and salvage a faltering nuclear deal.
The isolated and destitute North has longed to be delisted so it can better tap into international finance, see the lifting of many trade sanctions, and use global settlement banks to send money abroad instead of relying on cash-stuffed suitcases.
“As the U.S. fulfilled its commitment to make political compensation and a fair verification procedure in line with the phase of disablement ... the DPRK (North Korea) decided to resume the disablement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.
The spokesman said the North would “allow the inspectors of the United States and the IAEA to perform their duties on the principle of ‘action for action’,” saying it will disable the nuclear plant and permit the inspectors in as others fulfil their obligations.
The U.S. decision was made after the secretive North agreed to a series of verification steps on its nuclear plant, a State Department spokesman said in Washington on Saturday. The deal also called for resuming disablement and allowing in inspectors.
Last month North Korea lashed out at not being removed by backing away from the disarmament-for-aid deal it made with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, and took initial measures to rebuild its Soviet-era nuclear plant, which was being disabled under the pact’s terms.
Most of the disablement steps, which were started in November, had been completed and were aimed at taking at least a year to reverse.
South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy told a Sunday briefing in Seoul: “This government welcomes these moves as an opportunity that would lead to normalisation of the six-party talks and North Korea’s eventual abandonment of its nuclear programmes.”
But one hawkish Japanese minister called the U.S. decision regrettable because it left unresolved the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped by the North.
Under the deal, which still has to be formalised, experts would have access to all declared nuclear sites and “based on mutual consent” to sites not declared by the North, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
In addition, the United Nations atomic watchdog body, the IAEA, would play an important role in verifying Pyongyang’s atomic activities and the United States could take out samples of nuclear materials to check.
North Korea conducted its only nuclear test two years ago using plutonium. U.S. officials said verification would also check on a suspected programme to enrich uranium for weapons as well as proliferation.
Some conservatives in Washington wanted a tough verification system that would grant inspectors wide access to any suspected nuclear-linked facility in the secretive state and felt the Bush administration gave away too much for a rare diplomatic success.
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, calling the verification measures agreed on “pathetic,” and told Reuters:
“North Korea has won about a 95 percent victory here and achieved an enormous political objective in exchange for which the United States has got nothing,”.
If energy-starved North Korea backed away, it would remain on the terror list and stand to lose out on about half a million tonnes of heavy fuel oil, or aid of equal value, that had been pledged to it for previous progress in made in disarmament.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Cheon Jong-woo in Seoul, and Sue Pleming, Deborah Charles and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington