North Korea has agreed to allow a new international inspection of all seven of its declared nuclear facilities once it reaches an understanding with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the exact inspection procedures, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The tentative agreement represents an important step in the long-running international effort to block new work by North Korea on a nuclear arsenal, the officials said. But it does not meet Washington's past insistence on inspection of additional, undeclared nuclear sites in North Korea and it also does not ensure repeat inspections of even the seven declared sites, they said.
The plan has been approved by the Clinton administration, but its implementation has been held up by a squabble over whether North Korea's talks with the inspection agency are to be held in the capital of Pyongyang, as North Korea has sought, or at the Vienna headquarters of the IAEA, as the IAEA has insisted.
U.S. officials predicted yesterday that North Korea will agree shortly to hold the talks outside Pyongyang, in a move they hope will pave the way to completing the inspection and easing a dispute over North Korea's alleged work on a nuclear arsenal.
"We expect to have further contact soon with North Korea," said State Department spokesman Michael McCurry, who otherwise declined comment on the negotiations.
In New York, Ambassador Ho Jong, a top diplomat in the North Korean mission who participated in the talks with the United States, confirmed yesterday that North Korea is willing to allow the IAEA to conduct the inspection to "keep the continuity" of international safeguards against bomb-related work.
Ho said in an interview with Washington Post special correspondent Julia Preston that negotiations with U.S. officials in New York last month had produced "some very substantial progress" and that another round of discussions would be held in coming days.
At a meeting in New York last Wednesday, Clinton administration officials told North Korean representatives that the IAEA is opposed to sending a delegation of inspectors to Pyongyang without a clear, advance pledge that they will have adequate access to the nuclear sites.
The IAEA's refusal reflects the agency's pique over North Korea's handling of inspectors who flew to Pyongyang last August in the expectation of conducting a routine examination of the seven sites, as provided in a legal accord between North Korea and the IAEA in 1990.
After the inspectors' arrival, North Korea unexpectedly blocked full inspections of the two most important sites: a nuclear reactor harboring spent nuclear fuel and a laboratory capable of reprocessing the fuel to separate out plutonium for weapons. It said then that such inspections were not required because the country had suspended its adherence to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 1993.
In its talks with Washington, North Korea has not abandoned that assertion. A U.S. official said, however, that "for the moment, we're putting aside the issue of legality" to get on with whatever inspections the IAEA deems necessary. Another official said Washington was satisfied with North Korea's pledge to meet directly with the IAEA and provide more access than it did in August.
U.S. officials said that, in exchange for North Korea's concession, Washington agreed last month that South Korea would announce cancellation of the annual military exercise with the United States known as "Team Spirit" at the same time North Korea announces its willingness to accept the new inspection.
Previously, Washington and Seoul had sought to defer the announcement until the inspection began and new Korean talks on nuclear matters got underway. "There is no agreement" on any announcement about those talks, a senior official said.
An IAEA official said yesterday he was not prepared to say if the agency had accepted the new plan. But he said North Korea's continuing refusal to acknowledge its legal responsibility to allow as much access as the IAEA wants, including repeated visits to all seven nuclear sites, "leaves us feeling uneasy."
Ho, the North Korean negotiator, said inspections the IAEA has demanded of two additional military sites suspected of nuclear weapons activity remain "totally out of the question."