WASHINGTON -- The United States, warning that the Korean nuclear standoff has become "urgent," will demand again at a meeting in New York today that North Korea permit full inspection of its declared nuclear sites and resume talks with the South, a senior U.S. official said last night.
"On the one hand it isn't a crisis. On the other hand it really is an urgent issue," the official said.
The meeting between, Thomas Hubbard, a State Department East Asia executive, and North Korean envoys to the United Nations will mark the first official U.S. response to North Korea's proposal last Friday to allow partial inspections at its two most important nuclear facilities.
North Korea warned yesterday that it wouldn't improve on its offer. A foreign ministry spokesman told the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) his government had made its biggest possible concession in last Friday's talks.
While not rejecting the North Korean offer, Mr. Hubbard is expected to make clear that the United States and the world's nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, consider it inadequate. The United States will also demand that North Korea resume contacts with the South to pave the way for a high-level dialogue.
The senior official hinted at possible new U.S. concessions. Asked if the United States would "sweeten the pot" by addressing any of North Korea's concerns, he replied: "That's in the eye of the beholder."
The IAEA insists that its inspectors be given free rein to roam through the two key facilities, a reprocessing plant and a nuclear reactor, both at Yongbyon. The most recent North Korean offer would permit them only to change the film and batteries in cameras installed to monitor the sites between inspections.
Inspectors want to be able to interview employees, check for spent nuclear fuel rods and examine the seals they have installed to ensure that no nuclear material has been allowed to slip past monitors.
Such checks are crucial in trying to make sure North Korea isn't diverting nuclear fuel to assemble atomic weapons.
The IAEA is close to concluding that without new inspections, its confidence in being sure that North Korea isn't developing nuclear weapons diminishes daily.
Even if inspectors were permitted to return shortly, the film and batteries they had installed would probably have run out, IAEA David Kyd said in an interview from Vienna.
The inspectors would probably be able to recover their lost knowledge if they got in quickly, he said, providing that the seals haven't been tampered with.
The inducements the United States might use to gain more North Korean cooperation include scheduling high-level U.S.-North Korean talks on a range of issues, including full diplomatic ties, trade and perhaps aid, and suspension of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
In the past, North Korea has demanded that these concessions be granted simultaneously with its willingness to permit inspections, while the United States has insisted that North Korea move first.
The North Korean offer last week included partial inspections at the two key sites and full inspections at five lesser sites.
"The United States should approach the proposal prudently and make a decision on its judgment," the Pyongyang spokesman told KCNA, monitored in Tokyo.
He said that if the United States refused to accept the proposal his country "cannot but form the final judgment that the United States no longer has the intention to continue dialogue."
U.S. officials refused to take these comments as North Korea's last word, however, preferring to wait for today's face-to-face meeting.