As international tensions rise over a planned North Korean rocket launch, the U.N. nuclear agency is taking a wait-and-see attitude on an offer from the North to allow agency experts back into the country, according to a letter shared Tuesday with The Associated Press.
In the March 30 letter, circulated internally among the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35 member-nations, IAEA head Yukiya Amano expresses thanks for the March 16 overture by North Korean Atomic Energy head Ri Je Son and says "the IAEA will follow up on your invitation in a constructive spirit."
At the same time, the letter appears to make some linkage between an IAEA mission to the North and whether a Feb. 29 agreement between Pyongyang and Washington can be salvaged despite North Korean plans for a long-range rocket launch in mid-April _ a launch the U.S. says would sabotage the deal.
North Korea says the missile launch is intended to place an observation satellite into orbit. But the U.S. and others among the five countries in sporadic talks with the North view the launch as a cover for a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that one day could carry a nuclear warhead.
The rocket test was announced March 16, the same day Pyongyang invited the IAEA to visit.
Washington argues the launch would abrogate the Feb. 29 deal, under which the North would freeze nuclear activities and observe a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid.
The letter says the IAEA has "an essential role to play in verifying" the North's nuclear program. But it also notes that the tentative deal between Washington and Pyongyang that is now being threatened "is an important step in the right direction."
The letter _ and another one with the invitation from the North _ was given to the AP by a diplomat from a board member nation who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to share privileged material.
In recent days, IAEA officials have said privately that the agency and the North were discussing a timing and scope for any visit by agency experts as well as technical details.
But the careful diplomatic language in Amano's response nearly two weeks after the North's offer suggested the IAEA chief was awaiting events tied to the planned rocket launch before formally committing his agency to specifics.
Outreach by the United States, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan in recent years has failed to obtain a permanent commitment from the North to mothball its nuclear and missile programs.
IAEA inspectors were most recently expelled three years ago after the North quit talks with the five nations and restarted its nuclear facilities. Less than a month later, in May 2009, it conducted its second nuclear weapons test.
It first kicked out agency experts 10 years ago after the collapse of a 1994 deal with Washington.
North Korea is under tough U.N. sanctions that were tightened after its second nuclear test and the launch of a long-range rocket. In late 2010, Pyongyang unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that could give North Korea a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons in addition to a plutonium-based program at its reactor.
The agency sees its return to the North as crucial to its nonproliferation mission. But the letter from the North Korean official that was also shared with the AP indicated that any IAEA mission would be able to only monitor part of activities that could produce warhead material.
It offered a discussion of "technical issues with regard to the monitoring of (a) moratorium on uranium enrichment activities" but made no mention of access to its plutonium-producing reactor for verification that it remains out of commission.
A senior official from one of the five countries trying to engage the North said the five were consulting individually with Amano over the North's invitation and the agency's response. He demanded anonymity because his information was confidential.
George Jahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn