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ElBaradei says N.Korea asks U.N. to back off from nuclear site

VIENNA (Reuters) - North Korea asked the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog on Monday to remove seals and cameras from its main atomic complex, the agency’s chief said, after vowing to restart the facility -- reversing a nuclear disarmament deal.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei takes his chair as he attends an IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna's U.N. headquarters September 22, 2008. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

A senior diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency said seals had since been removed but did not elaborate. An IAEA official could not confirm that development and said efforts were being made to clarify the situation.

North Korea said on Friday it was working to reactivate the plutonium-producing Yongbyon complex, basis of its atomic bomb programme, which it had been dismantling since last November under a disarmament-for-aid deal that was rocky from the start.

The maverick Stalinist state’s foreign ministry said steps were under way to restore Yongbyon to its “original state”. Diplomats say that would take at least several months and probably longer since the complex was now largely broken up.

“This morning (North Korea) asked the agency’s inspectors to remove seals and surveillance equipment to enable them to carry out tests at the reprocessing plant, which they say will not involve nuclear material,” IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei told a meeting of the U.N. watchdog’s Board of Governors.

A senior diplomat close to the IAEA told Reuters: “Seals have been taken off.”


ElBaradei said: “Agency inspectors have observed that some equipment previously removed by North Korea during the disablement process has been brought back. This has not changed the shutdown status of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

“I still hope that conditions can be created for North Korea to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty at the earliest possible date and for the resumption of comprehensive (IAEA) safeguards,” he told the closed gathering in Vienna.

U.S. President George W. Bush told Chinese President Hu Jintao of his concern about North Korea’s turnabout and the two agreed to “work hard” to convince Pyongyang to resume denuclearization, the White House said on Monday.

“The two presidents agreed that they would work hard to convince the North to continue down the path established in the Six-Party Talks toward denuclearization,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said of the telephone conversation.

The five other countries are the United States, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea.

Last month, North Korea said it planned to restart Yongbyon because it was angry at Washington for not taking it off its terrorism blacklist. In early September, it made minor but initial moves to restart the plant, U.S. officials said.

Washington has said it will de-list Pyongyang once it allows inspectors to verify claims it made about its nuclear arms production, a demand that analysts say has angered Pyongyang.

“North Korea is taking these actions because it feels that the hard-won trust it had been building up with the United States has been damaged,” said Paik Hak-soon, director at the Centre for North Korean studies in South Korea.

North Korea may be willing to back down a little if the United States moves to adopt a flexible verification mechanism, he added.

Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Seoul; Editing by Dominic Evans