N Korean nuclear test still possible
Closure of reactor will not stymie Pyongyang's weapons ambitions
North Korea still has the ability to test a nuclear weapon even after the closure of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
Senior officials close to the six-nation effort to disarm North Korea yesterday described Pyongyang's Saturday announcement that it had shut down the reactor as an important strategic and symbolic gesture.
However, they warned that the Stalinist hermit state remained a nuclear threat, saying the next moves in the international effort would be the crucial ones.
Although Yongbyon's shutdown, yet to be verified by international inspectors, would effectively stop any attempt by Pyongyang to produce more weapons-grade plutonium, its existing stocks had yet to be confirmed and dismantled.
Regional intelligence analysts estimate North Korea now has enough plutonium for up to 10 weapons, with Yongbyon's relatively small Soviet-era reactor pumping out enough for about one weapon a year. It has been running intermittently for about 20 years.
'Even with Yongbyon down, the North is still a nuclear power ... that is the bottom line,' said one senior official close to the six-party talks.
'The next steps are the key to the future of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. That's when they are supposed to tell us exactly what weapons, materials and facilities they've got, dismantle them and then allow the international community to verify this has been done ... this is the hardest part of all.'
Yongbyon's facilities include two small reactors, and a larger one under construction, and radiochemistry laboratories and storage facilities spread across 400 buildings, officials said. North Korea's testing facilities are located northeast of Yongbyon, which is about 100km north of Pyongyang.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency travelled to Yongbyon over the weekend. They will spend about a month setting up equipment to verify and monitor the shutdown.
The country staged its first nuclear weapon test in October, sparking UN sanctions and an urgent drive to get the six-party talks back on track. That effort ended with North Korea signing an agreement in February with South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States that paves the way for complete denuclearisation. In return, North Korea will get aid in the form of a million tonnes of fuel oil.
The shutdown of Yongbyon was the first major step in the agreement. The next steps - the declaration and disablement of all other nuclear facilities, and eventual verification - are contained in the agreement. No timetable is given, however.
How those next steps will work must be thrashed out in further six-party sessions. New talks are expected to start in Beijing on Wednesday.
One sticking point relates to an incident in 2002 that saw an earlier agreement to shut down Yongbyon collapse. North Korea expelled inspectors and cranked the reactors back up.
The US then accused North Korea of ignoring a deal struck with the Clinton administration, citing intelligence that it was building a uranium-enrichment plant in secret. US officials later said North Korea acknowledged the programme at the time, but Pyongyang has repeatedly denied it since.
US intelligence officials backed away from their reports in congressional hearings held this year. No new plant has been found.
North Korea is expected to resist US attempts to include uranium-enrichment facilities in the declaration.
The Yongbyon facility is a sprawling site covering about 400 buildings
The estimated number of people working there is 2,000