UN inspectors arrived in North Korea yesterday for the first time in nearly five years, signaling a dramatic upturn in the pace of international efforts to halt Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
Before leaving Beijing, the head of the four-person team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Olli Heinonen, expressed optimism that the North would finally begin to disarm.
But he said he was not sure whether the team would be allowed to visit the Yongbyon reactor, the linchpin of the North's nuclear weapons drive which is to be sealed under a six-nation disarmament deal reached in February.
The arrival of the UN inspectors, confirmed by China's official Xinhua news agency, came as South Korea announced it would resume rice aid, which was suspended last July when the North conducted missile tests.
"I think the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will now do what they have been asked to do," Heinonen told reporters at Beijing airport.
"We are now on our way to North Korea where we hope to get the arrangement on behalf of the IAEA and hope to verify the shutting down and sealing of the Yongbyon facility," he said.
The visit by Heinonen and his team is the UN nuclear watchdog's first mission to the North since inspectors were kicked out in late 2002. IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei visited Pyongyang in March.
Heinonen said he and his team would probably return to Beijing on Saturday.
Asked if he was hopeful, he said: "Well, we are always a little optimistic. Let's see when we get there and the results that we come back with."
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that plans would be made during the trip for a visit to the Yongbyon facility, which could come "as early as next week."
The IAEA mission is in line with the February deal, under which the North pledged to shut down the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon under UN supervision in return for badly-needed energy aid and diplomatic concessions.
Members of a EU delegation that has just returned from North Korea reported yesterday that they had received clear assurances that the North would fulfil its side of the disarmament agreement.
The IAEA mission follows a visit last week by chief US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill.
Now back in Washington, Hill said the regime in Pyongyang had agreed to address questions over a controversial highly enriched uranium program that had triggered the nuclear standoff with the US.
"We had a very good discussion about it, I am not going into the specifics of it except to say that they acknowledged that this issue must be resolved to mutual satisfaction," he said.