IAEA Visits North Korea

The chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog held the agency's first talks with North Korea in more than four years in Pyongyang on Wednesday but the North's top nuclear negotiator said he was too busy to attend.

Instead, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei met another vice foreign minister and the head of the North's atomic energy agency, Ri Je-son, an IAEA spokeswoman said.

A digitalglobe satellite image shows a nuclear facility in Yongbyon, North Korea September 29, 2004.

ElBaradei's visit is the first by the agency since late 2002, when North Korea expelled the group as an earlier disarmament deal fell apart. It withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty days later.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said a meeting with nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan was unlikely.

"We were told he is busy working on the upcoming six-party talks," Fleming told Reuters by telephone from Pyongyang, referring to the talks that group the two Koreas, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

Kim was the chief negotiator to those negotiations that reached a deal in February in which North Korea agreed to shut the Yongbyon reactor at the heart of its nuclear programme in exchange for energy aid and security guarantees.

ElBaradei was also due to meet Kim Yong-dae, Vice President of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly.

Under the terms of the February agreement, the reactor must be shut by mid-April in return for an initial heavy fuel oil shipment.

But South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said North Korea had shown no signs of closing the reactor, which makes plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons. North Korea tested its first nuclear device in October, drawing widespread condemnation and U.N. sanctions.

"There is no indication of a change in the operational condition of Yongbyon," Song told a news conference in Seoul.

Earlier this week, a U.S. official said North Korea was preparing to shut down the Yongbyon complex, but other U.S. officials have been more guarded.

MULTILATERAL WALTZ

The IAEA, which is trying to iron out the details of a return of its inspectors to North Korea, will be key to verifying whether the reclusive state makes good on its pledge.

"We believe the improvement of relations between the two sides is an important step in the process," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said of the talks between Pyongyang and the IAEA.

China was again at the centre of the multilateral waltz as diplomats headed to Beijing to push forward the February 13 deal.

U.S. envoy Christopher Hill and his South Korean counterpart, Chun Yung-woo, were due to arrive on Wednesday ahead of working group meetings to flesh out parts of the agreement dealing with disarmament and energy.

Washington also said that within 30 days of the February deal it would settle a dispute over North Korean bank accounts frozen in Macau, the Chinese-controlled enclave.

Washington has said the accounts were used to launder illegal earnings for Pyongyang, but North Korea has protested against the restrictions and made lifting them a condition for renewed nuclear negotiations.

As part of the give-and-take to settle the dispute, the U.S. Treasury Department will bar U.S. banks from doing business with the Macau bank, which will allow Macau authorities to decide whether to release some of the frozen accounts, Washington officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

But releasing the funds could take weeks and Washington's prohibition on U.S. banks will continue to complicate the North's access to the international financial system. This is expected to irritate Pyongyang and could complicate efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, U.S. officials and experts said.

source AFP

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