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North Korea has shut down its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon and other facilities and accepted inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Although this is a welcome development, little optimism is warranted. The shutdown means only that North Korea has stopped producing any more plutonium to add to its nuclear material stockpile. The North carried out its first nuclear bomb test in October 2006. Although six-party talks are scheduled this week in Beijing, participating nations must not forget that the ultimate goal is to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and its weapons development programs.

The shutdown of the facilities, including one that extracts plutonium from nuclear fuel rods removed from the reactor, was part of the initial phase of a six-party deal reached Feb. 13. It is three months behind schedule, and North Korea made the move only after the first batch of 50,000 tons of fuel from South Korea arrived as a reward for the shutdown.

The Beijing talks will discuss the second phase under the February agreement. North Korea is supposed to declare all nuclear programs and disable all nuclear facilities in exchange for economic, energy and humanitarian assistance equivalent to 950,000 tons of fuel oil. In talking with North Korea, the five other parties — the United States, Japan, China, South Korea and Russia — may have difficulty in ironing out details that are needed to implement the second phase.

One problem is that North Korea denies the allegation that it has the capability for high-level enrichment of uranium. The five parties must ensure that North Korea declares all programs and disables all its facilities. They also must get a firm promise from the North that it will not reactivate the facilities. Having Pyongyang agree to let IAEA inspectors carry out their activities as needed will be important.

North Korea may try to divide the five nations. The North argues that further denuclearization progress hinges on Japan and the U.S. ending “their hostile policies toward” it. This makes the five nations’ unity all the more indispensable.

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