- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

VIENNA, Austria — North Korea yesterday asked the chief U.N. atomic inspector to visit — four years after expelling his monitors and dropping out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — an encouraging sign the reclusive regime is serious about freezing its weapons program.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), offered few details about his upcoming trip, which other agency officials said would likely occur in the second week of March.

The announcement signaled the North’s willingness to subject its nuclear program to outside scrutiny for the first time since withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003, just weeks after ordering nuclear inspectors to leave.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the invitation — which came five months after the North conducted its first nuclear weapon test — as a “good beginning,” an interpretation shared by the U.S. administration.

“We are really very pleased that the IAEA is now receiving the initial steps to be able to go back into North Korea to be able to verify compliance. It is indeed a good sign that it has happened as quickly as it has,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the invitation shows North Korea is willing to begin executing the terms of the six-nation deal reached Feb. 13, under which the North said it would dismantle its nuclear facilities and normalize relations with South Korea, Japan and the United States in exchange for oil shipments and security guarantees.

“We’ll be interested in hearing his report when he gets back,” Mr. Fratto said.

Amid the news reports on North Korea’s apparent new attitude, South Korean newspapers and wire services announced today that North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator plans to visit the United States next week for follow-up talks on the recent nuclear deal.

Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is expected to arrive in San Francisco Thursday en route to New York for meetings with his U.S. counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Mr. Hill said at the end of the negotiations that he had invited Mr. Kim to New York for normalization discussions.

Mr. ElBaradei’s trip to North Korea will mark only an initial step in the long and complex process that the international community hopes will result in stripping the North of its nuclear weapons capabilities and ensuring that the communist country remains without such arms.

In a process that one U.N. official said “could take years,” IAEA inspectors would be tasked with re-establishing the monitoring of the plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear facility, and then being on site while it is closed and eventually dismantled.

Conservatives in Washington have berated the Bush administration for caving in on its tough stance against the North. The United States agreed to resolve financial restrictions it placed on a Macau bank — accused of complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering by North Korea — to pave the way for the nuclear disarmament-for-aid deal.

Yesterday during a visit to Australia, Vice President Dick Cheney expressed caution about the agreement, but called it a “first hopeful step.”

“We go into this deal with our eyes open,” Mr. Cheney said. “In light of North Korea’s missile test last July, its nuclear test in October and its record of proliferation and human rights abuses, the regime in Pyongyang has much to prove.”

The Feb. 13 agreement signed by the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia specifies only that IAEA inspectors should be tasked with supervising the closing of the Yongbyon reactor.

Mr. ElBaradei said he and North Korean authorities would meet on how to “implement the freeze of [nuclear] facilities” and the “eventual dismantlement of these facilities.”

Mr. Ban, who was visiting U.N. agencies in Vienna, said he hoped the ElBaradei invitation would translate into concrete steps toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

The Feb. 13 deal requires North Korea to first shut down and seal its main nuclear reactor within 60 days of the agreement, accept international monitors and begin discussions with the United States on other nuclear facilities. In return, the nations would ship the North an initial load of fuel oil.

If North Korea reveals all its nuclear programs and begins to disable its nuclear facilities, it then would get a much larger shipment of fuel oil and aid. The United States also would begin the process of removing North Korea from its designation as a terror-sponsoring state and ending trade sanctions.

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