U.N. inspection team heads to N. Korea
VIENNA, Austria – A United Nations team left for North Korea on Thursday to supervise the shutdown of the plutonium-producing nuclear reactor that is the key component of the reclusive communist nation’s atomic weapons program.The inspectors departed as a South Korean tanker headed to North Korea carrying a load of oil as the initial delivery of energy aid promised to the impoverished North under a six-nation deal aimed at dismantling its nuclear arsenal.The arrival of U.N. experts will mark the first time in nearly five years that North Korea allows in a working team from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. The hard-line regime expelled IAEA monitors in late 2002, shutting its nuclear activities to outside view.But, after exploding a test atomic bomb last October, North Korea agreed four months later to scrap its nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic and political concessions in a deal with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.The nine IAEA experts took a flight to Beijing, and were expected to travel from the Chinese capital to Pyongyang, North Korea, on Saturday. A 10th expert was expected to join the group.North Korea strongly hinted last week that it would shut down its Yongbyon reactor after receiving an initial shipment of oil under the February deal.The South Korean tanker No. 9 Han Chang sailed for North Korea from the port of Ulsan on Thursday, carrying 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil. The ship was expected to arrive Saturday in the North’s northeastern port of Sonbong and would take some 48 hours to be unloaded.North Korea has been promised a total of 50,000 tons of oil for shutting the reactor, and it will get 950,000 tons if it disables all its nuclear facilities.The shutdown effort was delayed because of a dispute between North Korea and the U.S., which had forced the freezing North Korean funds in a Macau bank over accusations of money laundering and counterfeiting. The dispute was resolved recently as the U.S. helped release the funds.In Vienna, IAEA team chief Adel Tolba appeared optimistic about his mission.”I think it’s not hope. We have a reason to believe that it will be successful,” he told The Associated Press as his colleagues checked in 2,200 pounds of equipment for use during their inspection trip, which was approved Monday by the U.N. agency’s 35-nation board.Tolba declined to disclose any specifics about the trip. “It’s better that we wait and see, and then we will report to our board of governors,” he told reporters.The trip follows a visit to North Korea by the IAEA’s deputy director late last month to discuss details of how U.N. experts would verify the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor.On Wednesday, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters in Seoul, South Korea, that it was not known if the reactor would be shut down before the inspectors arrive.”We will verify that they will shut it. Whether they shut it before or not, that is immaterial,” ElBaradei told reporters.
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