BEIJING U.N. nuclear officials arrived in North Korea on Tuesday to negotiate terms for inspectors to monitor the shutdown of Pyongyang's nuclear reactor, its source of bomb-grade plutonium.
Pyongyang has agreed to implement a nuclear disarmament deal struck in February, reviving a long-stalled plan to provide North Korea with fuel in exchange for closing the Yongbyon reactor.
"We are always needing to be optimistic. I think the DPRK will now do what they have (been) asked to do," Olli Heinonen, chief nuclear inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told reporters in Beijing.
His team will be in North Korea for three days, negotiating arrangements for IAEA verification for the shutdown and sealing of the nuclear facilities and the reprocessing plant.
South Korea responded to the latest development by saying it would resume rice aid to impoverished North Korea from June 30. Food aid was suspended after Pyongyang defied international warnings and test-fired a barrage of missiles in July 2006.
North Korea ejected IAEA inspectors in December 2002 and left the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty shortly afterwards.
In 2005, North Korea announced it had nuclear weapons, and last year, the country test-detonated its first nuclear device, drawing widespread condemnation and U.N. financial and arms sanctions.
The two Koreas, Japan, Russia, the United States and host China hammered out an accord in February, with the ultimate goal of disabling the Yongbyon complex and completely scrapping the rest of Pyongyang's nuclear program in exchange for massive aid, security guarantees and better diplomatic standing.
North Korea had refused to honor the February agreement until the release of $25 million from Macau's Banco Delta Asia, frozen after the United States blacklisted the bank and accused it of laundering illicit funds for the reclusive country.
Pyongyang confirmed on Monday it had received the funds.
China has been in contact and consultations with other parties to work out arrangements for the next stage of the six-party talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
"We hope all sides can continue taking positive steps to fulfill their respective commitments to carry out the initial actions in a comprehensive and balanced manner," Qin said.
The IAEA team will brief the Chinese side upon its return from Pyongyang, he added.
The apparent progress on the nuclear issue has not seen North Korea soften on other fronts.
It has continued to criticize the United States and Seoul harshly on other issues, and on Tuesday its embassy in Beijing introduced a woman who said she had been abducted to Japan, where she had lived since 2003.
The woman, To Chu-ji, flew to Pyongyang on Tuesday.
Pyongyang admitted in 2002 that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese, five of whom were since repatriated. Tokyo wants better information about eight others who North Korea says have died and on another four people it says were also kidnapped.
(With additional reporting by Ben Lim and Guo Shipeng in BEIJING and Jack Kim in SEOUL)