Nuclear Inspectors in Pyongyang; S. Korea Approves Food Aid

With United Nations nuclear inspectors arriving in Pyongyang, South Korea is ending its delay of a promised shipment of rice to impoverished North Korea. South Korean authorities say they are satisfied diplomacy to end the North's nuclear weapons program is sufficiently back on track to start sending the food across the border. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung says a very large amount of rice will soon start leaving South Korean ports for delivery to North Korea.

Lee says ships carrying an eventual total of 400,000 tons of rice will begin departing South Korean ports on Saturday.

Seoul promised the rice shipment back in February, after Pyongyang signed on to an agreement to start dismantling its nuclear weapons program. But the North refused to meet a mid-April deadline for shutting down its main nuclear production facility in Yongbyon. Pyongyang blamed for its delay a banking dispute which was only finally resolved on Monday. South Korea has consistently maintained the rice aid depended on implementing the February agreement.

With the banking dispute resolved, a team of U.N. nuclear inspectors arrived in Pyongyang to begin five days of consultations with North Korean authorities.

Chief inspector Olli Heinonen said the team would negotiate the disabling not only of the Yongbyon reactor but also of the nuclear materials reprocessing plant attached to it. It is at such facilities that spent nuclear fuel is refined into material suitable for weapons production.

Unification Minister Lee says, even though the shutdown is not fully complete, South Korea judges the "conditions for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" to be taking shape. Lee has said for the past several weeks that, without the right conditions, his government could not justify the use of taxpayers' money to send rice to the North.

Lee says South Korea will be vigilant in making sure the rice goes to the people who need it most.

He says South Korea will use cameras and other recording techniques to inspect the distribution of the rice.

South Korean aid to the North has been criticized in recent years because it is often transferred with few or no strings attached. Experts say it is likely much of the South's previous food aid has been diverted to North Korean military forces and political elites.