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N. Korea says it has closed its disputed nuclear reactor

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- North Korea told the United States that it shut down its nuclear reactor, the State Department said yesterday, hours after a ship cruised into port loaded with oil promised in return for the country's pledge to disarm.

If confirmed by a UN inspection team that was sent to check the Yongbyon reactor, the shutdown would be the North's first step in nearly five years toward denuclearization.

"We welcome this development and look forward to the verification and monitoring of this shutdown by the International Atomic Energy Agency team," said Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman.

After negotiations and delays -- during which the North argued its nuclear program was needed for self-defense -- the reclusive regime said this month that once it received the oil shipment, it would consider halting its reactor.

The 10-member IAEA team arrived in the North Korean capital yesterday afternoon. Its leader, Adel Tolba, said inspectors would stay in the country as long as needed to complete their work at the Yongbyon plutonium-producing reactor, which is about 60 miles northeast of Pyongyang.

"We are going directly to the nuclear site at Yongbyon," Tolba told broadcaster APTN outside the airport.

Footage showed dozens of boxes being loaded onto the back of two trucks. It was not immediately clear what they contained, but Tolba had said the team was bringing 2,200 pounds of equipment for use during the trip.

Earlier, North Korea did not give a timetable for the shutdown, but Christopher Hill, the top US nuclear envoy, had said it would happen within days.

Speaking with reporters yesterday in the Japanese resort town of Hakone, south of Tokyo, Hill also said he expected the North to submit a full list of its nuclear facilities, as was agreed upon in a February disarmament deal.

"We expect the comprehensive list in a matter of several weeks, possibly several months," Hill said.

But he warned that the process probably would not go smoothly.

"I wish I could say we won't have any more problems, but experience tells me otherwise," Hill said.

After the IAEA team installs monitoring equipment, some inspectors will remain at Yongbyon to ensure the reactor stays shuttered, said a diplomat familiar with North Korea's file at the IAEA.

"The IAEA plans to have a permanent presence there, with some experts remaining at the site continuously," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

Yesterday's delivery of 6,200 tons of heavy fuel oil was the first of 50,000 tons promised to the North in exchange for shutting down its reactor. Pyongyang will eventually get 1 million tons of oil and other financial and political concessions in the deal with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.

The South Korean tanker No. 9 Han Chang arrived at the North's northeastern port of Sonbong, and the oil was being unloaded, a Unification Ministry official said. The South Korean official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

The six-party agreement eased a standoff that began in October 2002, when the United States said North Korean officials had admitted having a secret uranium enrichment program. Washington said that violated a 1994 agreement for the North's disarmament, and a month later halted oil shipments under that deal.

The North reacted by expelling IAEA monitors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and restarting the reactor.

North Korea has since occasionally shut down the reactor to remove fuel rods and extract plutonium. It is believed to have harvested enough for at least a dozen bombs.

The government set off an underground nuclear test explosion in October, leading to intensified international efforts to negotiate an end to its arms program. The North was likely to term the shutdown simply a suspension of operations -- which could be easily reversed.

Yesterday's developments could be seen as a victory for the Bush administration, which has said its strategy for dealing with the North Korean threat is working. Washington had rejected the North's demands for bilateral negotiations and insisted that talks include China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.