N. Korea calls halt to nuclear program

November 21, 1994|By New York Times News Service

TOKYO -- North Korea has struck its most conciliatory and cooperative note in years, announcing publicly for the first time that it had frozen its nuclear reactor program, as promised in an agreement with the United States.

It also vowed to carry out its pledge to dismantle the remaining elements in its suspected nuclear weapons sites and said over the weekend that it had permitted U.S. experts for the first time to visit its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, just north of the capital.

The visit was part of what the North called "useful and constructive" talks on safely storing and then disposing of fuel rods that the United States fears North Korea might turn into weapons-grade material.

Given the long trail of broken agreements in North Korea's relations with the United States, the strikingly upbeat remarks over the past few days did not ensure compliance.

But coming at a time when the North has taken other steps to reassure Washington and the United Nations, the comments were regarded as promising.

The U.S. team visited North Korea for five days and agreed to meet again in December. It inspected a muddy cooling pond where North Korea is temporarily storing nearly 8,000 spent fuel rods taken from a small reactor last spring. If reprocessed, the uranium in the rods could yield enough plutonium to make four or five nuclear weapons, U.S. intelligence officials have said.

An important part of the nuclear agreement is that North Korea will not reprocess those rods and will eventually allow them to be stored outside the country.

In addition, a North Korean envoy in Vienna met last week with officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog arm of the United Nations, and indicated that his country would soon issue visas to an agency inspection team.

The government-controlled Korea Central News Agency quoted a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry as saying, "We have taken steps for totally freezing the graphite-moderated reactors and their related facilities."

The agreement with the United States aims to dismantle three old-style, graphite-core reactors that produce relatively large amounts of plutonium, the key component in a nuclear bomb.

In return, North Korea is to receive two modern light-water reactors for generating electricity. It will also be provided fuel for an interim period to make up for a critical power shortage. Eventually, the United States has promised to open normal diplomatic communications.

The North Korean statement conspicuously left out one important feature of the agreement.

The United States has demanded that the North open two nuclear waste storage sites to international inspections. It is hoped that those inspections will reveal how much plutonium the North Koreans may have already diverted.

North Korea has flatly said in the past that those waste sites are off-limits, although the agreement with the United States suggests that they will be opened.

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