- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - The head of the U.N.’s atomic watchdog expressed confidence that President Barack Obama’s approach to North Korea and Iran will eventually help resolve international disputes over their nuclear programs.

“While I am distressed because, of course, what has happened in North Korea is a setback, I am optimistic about the new environment,” International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Monday in Beijing.

ElBaradei spoke after Pyongyang last week vowed to quit six-nation nuclear negotiations and restart its atomic program in anger over the U.N. Security Council’s criticism of its April 5 rocket launch. It also kicked out all international monitors of its nuclear facilities.

He spoke ahead of a trip Tuesday by 11 South Korean officials to the North to discuss a troubled inter-Korean industrial complex amid an overall worsening trend in relations.

The meeting in Kaesong is the first government-to-government dialogue since conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February last year with a pledge to get tough with Pyongyang and its nuclear ambitions. The nuclear issue, however, was not on the agenda for the meeting and it was unclear what attitude Pyongyang would take.

The North has been holding a South Korean worker at the joint complex for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang’s political system. South Korea hopes to try to win his release during the talks.

The South will “strongly respond” if North Korea takes any other steps against the worker beyond a fine, warning or expulsion _ moves that were agreed to by both sides, said Lee Jong-joo, spokeswoman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

The U.S. and North Korea have yet to achieve any breakthroughs under Obama and he has publicly criticized the rocket launch, saying it threatened the security of countries “near and far.”

Relations have been further complicated by the North’s apprehension last month of two U.S. journalists. Pyongyang says it will try the two women on charges of entering the country illegally and engaging in “hostile acts.”

Still, ElBaradei mentioned what he saw as Washington’s new openness to dialogue with countries like North Korea and Iran, in contrast to the previous administration of George W. Bush.

“I am extremely pleased that there is a reversal in the policy of the United States from one of confrontation to one of dialogue and mutual respect,” he said of overtures to Iran.

U.S. openness to Teheran could provide an opportunity “to resolve the Iranian issue, not just the nuclear issue but the whole regularization of relations between Iran and the international community,” he said.

North Korea has reacted angrily over the Security Council’s condemnation of the rocket launch. It says the rebuke is unfair because the rocket fired a satellite it says is allowed under a U.N. space treaty. But the U.S. and others say nothing entered orbit and the launch was really a test of long-range missile technology in violation of a U.N. resolution banning the North from any ballistic activity.

ElBaradei said “it could be a question of months” when asked how soon North Korea could restart its nuclear facilities _ a move that could yield weapons-grade plutonium.

Under a 2007 six-party deal, North Korea agreed to disable its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon north of Pyongyang in return for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions. In June 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower there in a dramatic show of its commitment to denuclearization.

But disablement came to halt a month later as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past atomic activities. The latest round of talks, in December, failed to push the process forward.

The six-party talks, which began in 2003, involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

ElBaradei expressed frustration that the North Korean nuclear issue has been so difficult to solve, pointing out the IAEA has been working on it since 1992.

He characterized that as “not the best record for dealing with a proliferation concern” and acknowledged “a lot of mismanagement.”


Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang in Seoul and Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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