VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Thursday it had begun talks with North Korea over Pyongyang's invitation for it to visit the country, three years after its inspectors were expelled from the reclusive Asian state.
North Korea's invitation to the International Atomic Energy Agency appeared to be an attempt to show it was serious about a nuclear moratorium deal with the United States last month even though it drew international condemnation last week for saying it would launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite.
"I can confirm that the IAEA has started consultations with the DPRK about its invitation," agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in an e-mailed response to a question.
North Korea is known formally as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The secretive North has twice tested a nuclear device, but experts doubt whether it yet has the ability to miniaturize an atomic bomb to fit inside a warhead.
Pyongyang is believed to have enough fissile material to make up to a dozen nuclear bombs. In 2010 it unveiled a uranium enrichment facility to go with its plutonium program, which opened a second route to making an atomic weapon.
The U.S. State Department said on Monday that, in principle, it supported efforts by the IAEA to gain access to North Korea to monitor Pyongyang's implementation of all aspects of the February 29 nuclear agreement.
However, it repeated that it believed this deal had been undercut by the North Korean announcement last week of the planned satellite launch.
Pyongyang had repeatedly backtracked on past deals over its nuclear program, but its latest moves mark a sharp change, at least outwardly, by its reclusive leadership led by 28-year-old Kim Jong-un following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
Under the February 29 accord, Washington agreed to supply the North with food in exchange for a suspension of nuclear tests, missile launches and uranium enrichment and to allow IAEA inspectors back into the country.
It is unclear how much scope for inspections the IAEA will get despite assurances it would grant inspectors access to the Yongbyon nuclear complex to verify a moratorium on uranium enrichment.
The North has limited their access during two previous periods when it allowed inspectors in.
North Korea expelled the IAEA a decade ago when a 1994 deal between Pyongyang and Washington unraveled.
It threw the organization out again in April 2009 after rejecting intrusive inspections agreed under a 2005 aid deal with five regional powers.
Analysts say North Korea may simply continue covert atomic activity elsewhere. Members of a U.N. expert panel said last year that North Korea most likely had several more undisclosed enrichment-related facilities.
(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Ben Harding)