BEIJING -- North Korea could be ready to begin shutting its plutonium-producing reactor within weeks as the first step toward disabling the unit by the end of this year, the top U.S. negotiator on the North's nuclear weapons program said here yesterday.
Christopher Hill, an assistant secretary of state, said stalled efforts to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program could move ahead after a pivotal weekend when Pyongyang invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit for talks on verifying and monitoring a shutdown.
"This is an event we have been looking forward to for some time," Hill said after talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said it would send a team to Pyongyang next week to discuss how its inspectors would verify the shutdown, the Associated Press reported from Vienna, Austria.
North Korea had refused to proceed with a February agreement to begin decommissioning its Yongbyon reactor until about $25 million held in a Macau bank was returned.
The money was frozen when the United States accused the bank, Banco Delta Asia, of complicity in financial crimes on behalf of North Korea.
After months of wrangling over the method of transferring the money, the funds were wired Thursday to the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
They were then to be sent to Russia's central bank before a further transfer to an account controlled by North Korea in a Russian commercial bank.
Hill said he would hold further talks this week with disarmament negotiators from Russia, South Korea and Japan on steps to make up for some of the time lost while the financial transfer was being organized. The discussions also would involve setting a timetable for resumption of six-nation arms-control talks.
Under the agreement reached at a session in February, North Korea pledged to shut the Yongbyon reactor and allow inspectors to verify and monitor the move in return for a 50,000-ton shipment of fuel oil.
Hill said the IAEA inspectors would hold talks with Pyongyang on verifying the Yongbyon shutdown and sealing the reactor, which would include the installation of television monitors at the site and other technical matters.
"Our sense is, we will be down to a matter of weeks," he said. "We are not talking about months."
In the next phase, North Korea would declare all its nuclear programs and disable all facilities in return for a further 950,000 tons of fuel oil.
Hill said that from a "technical point of view" it would be possible to conclude this part of the agreement by the end of the year.