SEOUL, October 12 – North Korea said on Sunday that it would resume work to disable plutonium-producing nuclear plants and readmit UN inspectors after the United States removed it from a terrorism blacklist.
South Korea said Washington’s move had put the nuclear disarmament process back on track, after a six-party deal appeared close to collapse, but a Japanese minister strongly criticised the US decision.
"As the US fulfilled its commitment to make political compensation and a fair verification procedure…the DPRK (North Korea) decided to resume the disablement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and allow the inspectors of the US and the IAEA to perform their duties," a foreign ministry spokesman said.
The North had stopped work to make the Yongbyon plants unusable and begun work to reactivate them because of the dispute over nuclear "verification" inspections and its inclusion in Washington’s terrorism list.
Last week it barred inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency from the plants, which produced the fuel for a nuclear test in October 2006 and possibly for up to half a dozen atomic weapons.
The spokesman, quoted by the official Korean Central News Agency, welcomed the US move and said Pyongyang would cooperate in verification.
But the spokesman cautioned that the US must ensure the delisting "actually takes effect."
Signatories to the six-party deal must also complete delivery of energy aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars and promised in return for the disabling.
The US refused to drop the North from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation which blocks bilateral economic aid and some multilateral assistance, until an inspections deal was reached.
This was achieved after a visit by US chief negotiator Christopher Hill to Pyongyang this month.
The US State Department said the North had agreed to verification of all of its nuclear activities, including an alleged covert highly enriched uranium programme and suspected proliferation.
"Every element of verification that we sought is included in this package," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Saturday.
The deal allows for outside experts to visit both declared and undeclared sites in North Korea, take and remove samples and equipment for analysis, view documents and interview staff, US officials said.
However, visits to sites not included in the North’s nuclear declaration delivered in June will require "mutual consent."
The June declaration dealt directly only with the admitted plutonium operation based at Yongbyon.
The North’s spokesman said the agreement relates to "the verification of objects of the disablement," a reference to Yongbyon.
Seoul’s top nuclear envoy Kim Sook said he expects six-party talks to resume "as early as possible" to finalise verification procedures.
The talks group the two Koreas, the US, Russia, China and Japan.
"The government appreciates that the measure will contribute to putting six-party talks back on track, a move that will eventually lead to North Korea’s nuclear abandonment," Kim told reporters, saying the North’s sincere cooperation with verification would be crucial.
Japan had urged Washington not to delist North Korea, pressing first for more information on the fate of Japanese kidnapped by the North in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies.
"It’s extremely regrettable, and I believe abductions amount to terrorist acts," Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa told reporters in Washington at a Group of Seven meeting of finance ministers.
But Prime Minister Taro Aso said the US step would not affect talks on resolving the abductions dispute.
"We will be able to have sufficient talks on the abduction issue," he said. "We don’t lose our diplomatic leverage."
Kim Taewoo, of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, called it "an agreement for an agreement’s sake."
He told AFP he suspected the US and North Korea both had "political reasons" to reach this kind of deal to pacify critics at home.