Negotiators in the North Korean nuclear talks agreed Saturday to a blueprint for verifying North Korea's nuclear disarmament as part of a deal under which it would dismantle its main Yongbyon nuclear weapons complex by the end of October in exchange for energy and economic aid.
The accord, announced by China in a joint communique among the six nations involved in the talks, gives new momentum to the negotiations, yet leaves many difficult issues unresolved in what has been a long and halting process to rid North Korea of its nuclear arsenal. No timetable has been set for full disarmament.
In the coming weeks, negotiators will try to hammer out critical details of the verification process that will be used by international inspectors to ensure that North Korea carries out its commitment to disarm. Under the agreement made public on Saturday, international inspectors will be allowed to visit North Korean nuclear facilities, review documents and interview technical personnel. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency will be allowed to participate in the verification process.
But those broad steps do not define the specifics of the verification process or describe how much leeway will be granted to inspectors visiting nuclear sites. Verification is considered a critical part of the disarmament effort, and the United States has pushed for a tough verification program. Negotiating teams are expected to meet in the coming weeks, possibly in Singapore.
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The senior American envoy expressed optimism that an accord on a detailed verification protocol was within reach.
“We would like the protocol to be reached within 45 days and secondly to begin the verification within 45 days,” the envoy, Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state, told reporters on Saturday afternoon. “We're anticipating that, and we don't see any obstacles to getting that done.”
Hill's optimism was not universal. The South Korean envoy, Kim Sook, said the verification negotiations would be challenging. “I am not optimistic at all about what's ahead, especially as implementing the verification guideline is a very difficult job where we need to coordinate the different position and interests of the six parties,” he said, according to Reuters.
In addition to China, the United States, South Korea and North Korea, the other nations involved in the negotiations are Russia and Japan. Envoys from countries involved in the disarmament talks arrived in Beijing on Thursday for three days of negotiation after a nine-month hiatus.
Last month, after a long delay, North Korea released a declaration outlining its nuclear program to the outside world. In a largely symbolic gesture, it also blew up the cooling towers at the Yongbyon complex.
In exchange for disabling the Yongbyon complex, North Korea would get 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil. The United States and Russia would provide these energy shipments and economic aid as negotiated under previous agreements. China and South Korea will work to complete deals for other assistance, according to the communique.