UN nuclear monitor in Beijing prepares for North Korea visit

How to verify that North Korea is shutting down its main nuclear reactor will dominate the agenda for a rare U.N. visit this week to the communist nation, a senior nuclear monitor said Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's deputy director general for safeguards, Olli Heinonen, arrived in Beijing early Monday and was due to fly to Pyongyang Tuesday for a five-day visit, along with three colleagues.

The U.N. agency visit, following the resolution of a financial dispute between Washington and North Korea and a U.S. diplomat's visit there last week, has fueled optimism that Pyongyang is finally ready to take concrete steps to shut its plutonium-producing Yongbyon facility.

"Now we are going to go to negotiate the details: how to verify and make sure the reactors will be shut down at Yongbyon," Heinonen told reporters upon arrival at Beijing's International Airport.

He said he was unsure whether he would have a chance to actually visit the Yongbyon site.

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.

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.

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.