Returning from a two-day trip to North Korea, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohammed ElBaradei appeared positive, declaring his satisfaction at the cooperation received but warned that the agreement was still precarious and was just part of a very incremental process.
Speaking at a press conference in Beijing yesterday, Dr. ElBaradei briefed the press as to the results of his visit to North Korea, striking a carefully considered tone, saying that his visit had been "quite useful in overcoming rocky relations between the IAEA and North Korea for 13 years." Over this period, the IAEA has three times been at loggerheads with North Korea in 1993, 2000 and 2002 over the monitoring of Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
Dr. ElBaradei praised his North Korean hosts, pointing out that the talks helped clarify the two sides' positions and to "look forward and build confidence without rehearsing the past." The trip was successful in better understanding North Korea's apprehensions and sensitivities while ensuring Pyongyang appreciate the steps to be taken in terms of monitoring.
Addressing North Korea's commitment to the February 13 agreement, Dr. ElBaradei appeared satisfied, confirming that Pyongyang remained ready to play its part and to shut down the Yongbyon reactor, including the reprocessing facility. However, he did strike a cautious note, reiterating that Pyongyang's collaboration was guaranteed so long as other countries fulfilled their promises.
Of particular importance to North Korea in this regard is the lifting of financial sanctions against it and the unfreezing of its Macao accounts, he stressed. Despite reassurances on Tuesday from top US envoy to the six-party talks Christopher Hill, that the sanctions would be lifted as promised within 30 days, Dr. ElBaradei confirmed that the completion of the agreement would hinge upon this fact. He stated that should the financial sanctions be lifted within 30 days, then the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor and negotiations on allowing IAEA inspectors to return within another 30 days.
Asked whether any new demands had been made ahead of the six-party talks, Dr. ElBaradei responded that "no new demands have been made. North Korea remains ready to implement the agreement once other parties to do so."
"I was not privy to the February 13th agreement so cannot talk with authority about it. But should the conditions not been respected, it will be for the six-party talks to decide the next move."
He also revealed that North Korea was ready to return to the fold of the IAEA and invited it to re-apply for membership in good time.
"I welcome this initiative (North Korea returning to the IAEA) and I hope North Korea will apply soon so as to allow them to benefit from the agency's help, not only in terms of monitoring…but also in terms of education, healthcare and agriculture."
The senior UN official on nuclear non-proliferation also struck a note of caution, warning media not to get carried away on a wave of optimism and called upon all parties to hold up their end of the agreement.
"The agreement is still fragile, precarious and has taken some years to obtain. This is a very incremental process, all parties must work together in an accommodating and patient manner."
Ahead of the six-party talks restarting on Monday, Dr. ElBaradei is set to brief Chinese officials on his North Korean visit while also holding meetings with Hill and North Korea's top envoy Kim Kye-gwan who was reportedly too sick to meet with the IAEA chief before he flew to Pyongyang.
(China.org.cn by Chris Dalby, March 15, 2007)