VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog’s governing body agreed on Monday to send monitors to North Korea to verify a shutdown of its atomic bomb programme, launching what is likely to be a long and arduous disarmament process.
It would be the first International Atomic Energy Agency mission in the reclusive Stalinist state since it expelled IAEA inspectors in 2002 after Washington accused it of a clandestine effort to refine nuclear fuel.
Clearance for IAEA monitors to fly into North Korea was expected once Pyongyang receives a first batch of fuel later this week, pledged as part of its February disarmament accord with the United States and four other powers.
South Korea said a ship carrying the fuel would leave on Thursday on a voyage likely to take two days.
In a special session, the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors approved by consensus the return of nuclear monitors to North Korea 10 days after senior IAEA and North Korean officials agreed ground rules for verifying the atomic halt.
Diplomats said nine monitors would install security cameras and place seals on infrastructure in Yongbyon, including its 5 megawatt reactor where North Korea has produced plutonium, leading to its first test nuclear explosion last October.
IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei said the IAEA expected to get monitors into North Korea “within the next week or two”.
“Shutting down the facilities according to our experts will not take much time -- probably a few days,” he told reporters.
“But then we have to have other equipment in place to ensure we are able to monitor the (shutdown), so these activities are going to happen in the next couple of weeks.”
IAEA diplomats said at least two monitors would remain on site indefinitely while North Korea and five powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea -- negotiate further steps towards denuclearisation.
But getting Pyongyang to go beyond a freeze to an elimination of its nuclear capability and its plutonium stockpile is seen as a much tougher challenge as it is the North’s sole clout in a world it sees as widely hostile.
“This is the beginning of (what is) going to be a long and complex process,” ElBaradei cautioned.
After throwing out U.N. inspectors in 2002, North Korea quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which the IAEA enforces. In 2005, Pyongyang declared it had nuclear arms, and unnerved the world with a test-detonation a year later.
The IAEA verification task is only an “ad hoc arrangement”, not a normal, full-fledged inspections regime. That would have to be negotiated later as part of a new Safeguards Agreement to bring North Korea back into the NPT.
North Korea agreed on February 13 to close Yongbyon and take steps to disable all its nuclear facilities in exchange for 950,000 more tonnes of fuel oil or aid of equivalent value.
Elbaradei put the cost of the IAEA monitoring mission at 1.7 million euros ($2.3 million) for 2007 and 2.2 million euros in 2008 and said the IAEA was assured of getting extra-budgetary funds for the task from various donors.
Diplomats said U.S. and European Union envoys pledged at least some of the money at the board meeting with Japan, Russia, China and South Korea likely to chip in the rest if needed.
Earlier on Monday, the board approved an IAEA budget of 295 million euros (201 million pounds) for 2008 after agency planners cut a requested rise from 2 percent to 1.4 percent above inflation.
ElBaradei said the deal was “far from adequate” at a time of rising nuclear proliferation challenges like Iran.
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