Many analysts and officials in Seoul expected more tangible progress to be made at this week's multilateral nuclear talks, describing the recent shutdown of the North's main nuclear reactor as a clear sign that Pyongyang is moving toward ending the years-long nuclear standoff, implementing a landmark disarmament deal reached in February.
Foreign Ministry officials here said the six-party nuclear negotiations opened in Beijing "in a better atmosphere than ever before."
Just ahead of the opening, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Chun Yung-woo, said full implementation of the Feb. 13 deal could be possible before the end of the year, noting that it largely depends on the "political will" of the North's top leadership.
U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill also said his country is pushing for achieving the disablement of the North's nuclear facilities within this year.
Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at Seoul's private Sejong Institute, expressed an optimistic view, saying both Pyongyang and Washington seem resolved to implement the Feb. 13 accord.
"The shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor is a significant progress as it would keep the North from producing more nuclear weapons," he said. Paik and other analysts say this week's nuclear talks would be crucial to carrying out the next phase of disarmament.
In an initial disarmament step under the Feb. 13 deal, North Korea has shut down a plutonium-producing 5-megawatt graphite-moderated reactor in Yongbyon and invited back U.N. nuclear inspectors, timed with the arrival of the first shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy oil promised in compensation for the reactor closure.
Seoul has so far shipped 13,700 tons of fuel oil. Seoul officials say total shipment of 50,000 tons would be completed early next month.
The six nations, which include China, Japan and Russia, have also created five working groups to handle specific issues, such as U.S.-North Korea relations, Japan-North Korea ties, peace and security in Northeast Asia, denuclearization and North Korean energy needs.
Under the second phase of the aid-for-disarmament deal, the North should declare and permanently disable all its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for an additional 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent. In addition to the 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon, the North has a "radiochemical laboratory," a facility where plutonium is extracted by reprocessing spent fuel rods removed from the reactor, partially constructed 50-megawatt reactor and 200-megawatt reactor.
The second phase also calls for a gathering of foreign ministers from the six countries and a separate forum to negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula, which would address the North's security fears.
Not a few analysts remain skeptical about Pyongyang's commitment to carrying through with the second-phrase obligations. They said the North was already forecast to implement the initial disarmament step because it has to shut down its aging Soviet-era reactor in return for massive energy aid.
The shutdown of the 5-megawatt reactor and other nuclear facilities would be no big loss to the North because it already has enough plutonium to make more nuclear weapons, they say. Furthermore, the country can turn the reactor back on and reprocess the spent fuel anytime.
The 5-megawatt reactor was frozen in 1994 after signing a deal with Washington in return for getting oil shipments and the promise of two nuclear reactors for generating electricity. But the North revived the reactor after the United States accused Pyongyang in late 2002 of running a secret uranium-enrichment program.
"The shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor is no more than the beginning of a long process of denuclearization," said Cheon Seong-whun, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korean Institute for National Unification. "It is uncertain that the next phase of disarmament would go smoothly," he said, warning against overly optimistic views on the nuclear standoff.
Cheon said Pyongyang's recent call for direct military talks with the United States -- excluding South Korea -- to discuss a peace settlement on the Korean peninsula indicates a rough road ahead on the North's disarmament.
The nuclear-armed North, he said, is expected to ask for mutual arms reductions that would also stipulate the reduction of the American nuclear arsenal and call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South.