Without much fanfare, there has been a recent flury of progress toward actual, verifiable North Korean nuclear disarmament. In the latest development, the IAEA announced this morning that a team should be on the ground by Saturday, July 14 to oversee the shutdown of the plutonium producing Yongbyon facility.
So what does this mean for the wider non-proliferation debate? It would seem that Security Council sanctions, backed by regional diplomacy and direct bi-lateral engagement with the United States can coax a country away from its nuclear ambitions.
In February, the six party talks yielded its first breakthrough since North Korea withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty in January 2003. North Korea, incidentally, agreed to return to the six party process only one month after the the Security Council slapped sanctions on North Korea in October 2006. Per the February arrangement, DPRK promised to dismantle the facility at Yongbyon in exchange for a package of food and fuel subsidies. But as the deadline approached in May, Pyonyang balked, demanding that the United States release $25 million in frozen North Korean assets. Then, on June 22 Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill made a surprise visit to Pyongyang to shore up the deal.
This was the first face-to-face meeting with a high level American official in five years. It seems to have helped move things along. Six days later June 28, an IAEA assessment team traveled to the Yongbyon facility to hammer out a technical agreement that would allow the IAEA to oversee its shutdown. This, I should note, was the first time that an IAEA team set foot in North Korea since 2002. Now, by the end of the week, an IAEA North Korean mission will be on hand to verify the closure of Yongbyon. This is progress.