U.N. nuclear agency "ready to return" to North Korea

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog stands ready to return to North Korea, its chief said, after the reclusive state agreed to stop nuclear tests and uranium enrichment and let inspectors visit its Yongbyon site to verify the moratorium.

“The agency has an essential role to play in verifying (North Korea’s) nuclear program,” Director General Yukiya Amano of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

“Pending further details, we stand ready to return to Yongbyon to undertake monitoring activities upon request and with the agreement of the agency’s Board of Governors.”

The Vienna-based agency’s 35-nation governing board is due to meet next week for a regular quarterly meeting.

IAEA inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009.

Wednesday’s announcement, made simultaneously by the U.S. State Department and North Korea’s official news agency, paves the way for the possible resumption of six-party disarmament negotiations with Pyongyang and follows talks between U.S. and North Korean diplomats in Beijing last week.

It also appears to mark a significant policy shift by North Korea’s leadership following the death in December of veteran leader Kim Jong-il - although analysts cautioned that Pyongyang has backtracked repeatedly on past deals.

The IAEA’s Amano, a Japanese diplomat, called the U.S. statement about its recent talks with North Korea “an important step forward.”

In an interview last year, Amano told Reuters that his inspectors could return “quite quickly” to North Korea once the parties in the dispute reached an understanding on the issue.

The IAEA is believed to have a team of inspectors who are specialized on North Korea and prepared to go there at short notice. Dozens of its inspectors have past experience of working in the Asian state.

Allowing IAEA staff to travel to North Korea may help address international concerns about Pyongyang’s atomic aims, but analysts have in the past voiced doubt the North would grant the U.N. agency full access to nuclear facilities.

The Yongbyon complex is at the heart of North Korea’s plutonium weapons program. It includes a reprocessing plant where weapons-grade material is extracted from spent fuel rods.

In late 2010, foreign experts said North Korean officials had shown them what they said was a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, potentially offering a second path to make bombs.

To be sure no material is diverted for military purposes, analysts said inspectors would need unfettered access to all uranium enrichment activities. This would usually mean frequent inspections, video cameras and special seals at such sites.

It was unclear how much access IAEA inspectors would really get if they could return. North Korea has limited their oversight in the past.

The secretive state kicked out international inspectors in 2002 after seals placed on key parts of the Yongbyon plant as a 1994 deal between Pyongyang and Washington unraveled.

It expelled inspectors again in April 2009 after rejecting the intrusive inspections agreed under a 2005 nuclear-disarmament-for-aid deal with five regional powers that allowed watchdogs to return.

Former IAEA chief inspector Olli Heinonen said by email that although the announcement was a positive step, North Korea “has still to place all nuclear material and facilities under the IAEA safeguards.”

Reporting by Fredrik Dahl and Michael Shields; Editing by Rosalind Russell