US experts supervising the disabling of North Korea's nuclear plants have made a good start and the North has been very cooperative, the leader of their team said yesterday.
Pyongyang's action to roll back its atomic program, after half a century of research and development, follows a February six-nation accord under which it will receive major aid and diplomatic benefits for full denuclearization.
US State Department official Sung Kim, who heads up the nine-strong team overseeing the unprecedented operation which began on Monday at the North's Yongbyon complex, arrived in Seoul yesterday to brief officials.
Asked by reporters if the North had been cooperative, Kim said: "Yes, very cooperative."
He added: "I think we are off to a good start. I hope to achieve all the disablement, at least this phase of disablement, by December 31."
A key priority is the reactor at Yongbyon, the source of the plutonium used in the communist state's nuclear test in October of last year.
Kim said work had been done at the reactor and the complex's other main facilities, a reprocessing plant and a fuel fabrication plant.
The North shut down the reactor in July. Disablement, scheduled for completion by year-end, aims to make it and other facilities unusable for at least a year while talks on total denuclearization continue.
Pyongyang will receive energy aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars in return for disablement and a full declaration of all its nuclear programs, including a suspected highly enriched uranium project.
"So far, so good," said South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Chun Yung-Woo.
The declaration of programs is "much more important" than the disabling of nuclear facilities, he said.
"In the declaration, there are many factors that should be clarified -- for instance, the uranium enrichment program (UEP) and the plutonium programs too. The key is how precise and complete the declaration will be," Chun said.
US claims in 2002 that the North was operating a covert highly enriched uranium program to make weapons fuel, in addition to the plutonium operation, led to the collapse of a 1994 nuclear disarmament deal.
The two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia have been haggling since August 2003 on making the North nuclear-free.
If North Korea goes on next year to dismantle the plants and give up its entire plutonium stockpile and all its nuclear weapons, it can expect normalized relations with Washington and a peace pact to replace the 1950-1953 Korean War armistice.
Another incentive is the North's removal from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
This designation prevents the North from receiving US economic assistance, and also blocks loans from the World Bank and other multilateral organizations.
At a meeting in Beijing between the chief US and North Korean nuclear negotiators on Oct. 31, Washington gave Pyongyang "concrete" terms for its removal from the terror list, Yonhap news agency said.
Those terms included "not only implementing 11 concrete measures aimed at disabling the nuclear facilities by year-end but also clarifying the UEP based on more convincing evidence," a government official told the agency in Boston.
The Yonhap reporter was accompanying South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon on a US visit.
In a speech on Monday at Harvard University, Song cautioned that negotiators were "entering untrodden territory" in dealing with nuclear disablement.