North Koreans Say They’ve Shut Nuclear Reactor

North Korea told the United States today that it has shut down the nuclear reactor and readmitted a permanent international inspection team, completing its first step toward reversing a four-year-long confrontation with the United States during which the country appears to have built a small arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The North sent a message that the reactor at Yongbyon had been shut down through the country’s small mission to the United Nations at 9:30 this morning, according to Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state who negotiated the accord in February after gradually getting the Bush administration to reverse many of the decisions it made in the first term about how to deal with the reclusive state.

The North Korean claim, which was carefully synchronized with the arrival of a first shipment of fuel oil from South Korea, can be easily verified by the 10-member inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency. They arrived at the bleak, heavily guarded nuclear site roughly 60 miles north of Pyongyang today, to begin supervising what is envisioned as a lengthy disarmament plan.

American spy satellites will also be able to detect whether the reactor core is cooling, though that confirmation could take several days.

But Mr. Hill has said that it could be the end of the year before North Korea, in return for large shipments of additional fuel oil, completes the next critical steps required under the accord: Permanently disabling the reactor so that it can no longer produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, and issuing a complete declaration of all of its nuclear assets — including how many weapons it may have produced since it threw out inspectors just before New Years Day in 2003.

“Declaration is one of the early next steps,” Mr. Hill said in Tokyo before the notification of the shutdown. “We would expect a comprehensive list, declaration, to be in a matter of several weeks, possibly a couple of months. We see it as coming before disabling of the facilities,” he said.

He cautioned that the shutdown was “just the first step.”

It may also be the easiest. Far more difficult, according to experts and former negotiators with North Korea, will be convincing the country to disgorge what the C.I.A. estimates is enough plutonium fuel for eight or more weapons. Almost all of that was produced starting in 2003, while the United States was distracted by the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

The accord signed in February commits the country to eventually ridding itself of that fuel or the weapons it may have been turned into. But it sets no deadlines, and getting the North to take those steps would require a second negotiation.

“I could imagined that the next steps could extend beyond this administration,” William Perry, the former defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, who conducted negotiations with North Korea all through the late 1990s, said in an interview in his office at Stanford University on Friday. “And the North Koreans will demand a pretty high price for that.”

Still, for President Bush the announcement today constitutes a rare diplomatic victory for an administration besieged on many fronts. In recent weeks the rising demands from Congress for a date to begin the withdrawal from Iraq, the struggle to keep Al Qaeda and the Taliban from expanding new footholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a rapidly expanding nuclear challenge from Iran has created a sense in Washington and around the world that Mr. Bush is badly weakened, and could spend the last 18 months of his presidency attempting to undo steps taken in the first six and a half years.

But the shutdown of the reactor and readmitting inspectors gives him an opportunity to argue that a five-year-long strategy of negotiating alongside North Korea’s neighbors — China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — is finally bearing fruit. Mr. Bush’s innovation in dealing with the North Koreans has been an insistence that all of those countries must be party to any deal.

That approach appears to have been vindicated, though in the end the administration had to drop its insistence that North Korea would not be rewarded from reversing the steps it took in 2003, when it threw out the inspectors, cranked up the production of bomb material, and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

To lure Kim Jong Il, the North’s reclusive leader, to return to the status quo of 2002, Mr. Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to route around Vice President Cheney to strike a deal that called for the North to receive large shipments of oil as it took these first steps. They returned $25 million in cash that the administration had claimed was the ill-gotten gains of counterfeiting and arms sales, in the end using the Federal Reserve to get the money from a bank in Macao into the hands of the North Korean leadership. That process took months longer than anyone expected, delaying the reactor shutdown.

The administration’s critics also noted that the February agreement to provide the North with oil bore a strong resemblance to the 1994 accord between the North and the Clinton administration that Ms. Rice had denounced at the beginning of the Bush administration as an ill-conceived giveaway, and that hardliners in the administration dismantled in 2003.

The divisions over North Korea policy ran so deep that some members of the Bush Administration departed, partly in protest. Among them was Robert Joseph, the assistant secretary of state for arms control and disarmament, who told Ms. Rice that he believed the United States was helping prop up a regime that President Bush had termed evil, one that locks dissidents in gulags and whose people have starved.