June 24, 2007 / 11:03 AM / 11 years ago

IAEA chief inspector leaves for North Korea visit

VIENNA (Reuters) - Olli Heinonen, chief inspector of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, set out for North Korea on Sunday to agree details on the return of IAEA inspectors to monitor Pyongyang’s promised atomic shutdown.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief weapons inspector Olli Heinonen briefs the media at Vienna's international airport June 24, 2007. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

“The purpose of the trip is now to go to negotiate details on behalf of the IAEA on verification of the monitoring and closing down of the Yongbyon facility,” Heinonen, deputy director in charge of global nuclear safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told reporters at Vienna’s international airport.

“This is the result of the discussions of the six parties... and (a) subsequent step forward after the visit of Mr. ElBaradei to Pyongyang in March,” said Heinonen, who will be heading a four member team.

Following a stop over in Beijing on Monday, the team was scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang on Tuesday and is expected to stay for five days in the reclusive country. Negotiations will last two to three days, Heinonen said.

North Korea agreed in February to mothball its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the centre piece of its nuclear program and source of weapons-grade plutonium, in exchange for fuel aid and security benefits as well as a process to remove trade sanctions and Pyongyang from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But North Korea refused to honor the agreement until the release of $25 million at Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, frozen after the United States blacklisted the bank accusing it of laundering illicit funds for the country.

On June 14, the government of Chinese-controlled Macau said the money had been released. Moscow confirmed on Saturday that the funds had been transferred to a Russian bank.

Also on Saturday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill — who made a brief trip to the East Asian state this week — said in Tokyo that North Korea would shut down Yongbyon very soon, probably within three weeks.

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. Last year, the country test-detonated its first nuclear device, drawing widespread condemnation and U.N. financial and arms sanctions.

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