- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korea could restart its nuclear facilities within months, the chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog warned Monday, but added he was optimistic that negotiations on halting Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions could be revived.

North Korea kicked out all international monitors of its nuclear facilities last week after vowing to quit six-nation disarmament talks and restart its atomic program in anger over the U.N. Security Council’s criticism of its April 5 rocket launch.

Pyongyang says the U.N. rebuke is unfair because the liftoff was a satellite launch under its peaceful space program. But the U.S. and others say nothing entered orbit and that 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.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed El-Baradei said in Beijing on Monday “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.

However, El-Baradei also said he was hopeful that openness shown by the United States under the administration of President Barack Obama would help resume international talks with North Korea.



“While I am distressed because, of course, what has happened in North Korea is a setback, I am optimistic about the new environment,” El-Baradei said, and pointed to Washington’s new openness to dialogue with countries such as North Korea and Iran _ nations whose nuclear ambitions have alarmed the international community.

El-Baradei spoke a day before the North is set to hold its first official dialogue with South Korea in more than one year, amid speculation that Pyongyang could use the meeting to further raise tensions.

The talks come as North Korea is warning the South not to join a U.S.-led program to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has also been holding a South Korean worker at a joint industrial complex for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang’s political system.

The mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo newspapers said the North could threaten to further undermine the industrial zone, where more than 100 South Korean companies run factories and employ North Korean workers, if Seoul announces its participation in the U.S-led, anti-WMD program.

North Korea has long condemned the Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI, calling it a U.S. effort to overthrow its regime, and has warned Seoul that its participation would be considered a “declaration of war.”

The North renewed the warning against the South on Sunday, with its military saying that southern authorities should never forget that “Seoul is just 50 kilometers (31 miles) away” from North Korea _ an apparent reminder that the South Korean capital is within easy artillery range.

Tuesday’s talks will mark the first government-to-government dialogue between the sides since Seoul’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in February last year with a pledge to get tough with Pyongyang and its nuclear ambitions.

Ties have since rapidly strained, with the North cutting off dialogue and suspending major reconciliation projects. The sides have met only for military talks or on the sidelines of six-nation negotiations aimed at North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.

Despite the nuclear standoff, El-Baradei said his personal view was that the only way to resolve such issues was “not through flexing muscles, not necessarily only to go to the Security Council, but to try to address the root causes and engage in mutual dialogue based on mutual respect.”

“If you develop a package for North Korea based on assurance of security, economic assistance, human rights, I would hope that North Korea would come back to the fold and again come back to the nonproliferation treaty,” he said. The North withdrew from that treaty in 2003.

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.

___

Associated Press Writer Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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