North Korea has invited UN inspectors to monitor a nuclear freeze deal with the United States, insisting the pact remains in force despite its shock announcement of a planned satellite launch.
Next month's scheduled launch, which would defy a United Nations ban, has sparked widespread complaints that the communist state is testing long-range missile technology which could one day deliver a nuclear warhead.
Washington says any launch would breach the bilateral deal announced on February 29, which offered major US food aid for a partial nuclear freeze.
The North, led since December by the young and untested Kim Jong-Un, insists otherwise, and said it was inviting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) back three years after expelling the UN division.
"The satellite launch is one thing and the DPRK (North Korea)-US agreement is another," its chief nuclear negotiator Ri Yong-Ho said late Monday in Beijing.
The North will implement its deal with the United States in full, he told reporters, according to video aired Tuesday by South Korea's KBS television.
"In order to implement the agreement, we've sent a letter of invitation to the IAEA to send inspectors to our country," Ri said.
The US deal had raised modest hopes of progress in decades-long efforts to curb the North's nuclear weapons drive.
It agreed last month to suspend its uranium enrichment programme, along with long-range missile launches and nuclear tests, in return for 240,000 tonnes of US food. It also promised to readmit IAEA inspectors.
The North insists a peaceful satellite launch is not a missile test.
But the United States, Japan, Russia and other nations have called for it to scrap the plan, and even close ally China has expressed concern.
China said Tuesday that Ri and his counterpart Wu Dawei had a "frank and in-depth exchange of opinions" when they met Monday.
It was the second time the two sides had met since North Korea's announcement Friday of its satellite plan, indicating the level of concern in Beijing.
Japan has said it may try to shoot down the North Korean rocket if it heads towards Japanese territory or waters.
In Washington US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said any IAEA access to the North would be beneficial.
"But it doesn't change the fact that we would consider a satellite launch a violation, not only of their UN obligations but of the commitments that they made to us on Leap Day," she said.
Some analysts say the North is following a pattern in which it responds to "hostile" criticism of its missile launches with an atomic weapons test.
The first such test in October 2006 came three months after a missile launch.
The second nuclear test in May 2009 came less than two months after the UN Security Council condemned another rocket launch, purportedly designed to put a satellite into orbit.
A Security Council resolution approved later that year bans the North from further nuclear tests or from launching a ballistic missile for any purpose.
Blast-off, between April 12-16, is timed to coincide with mass celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung -- founder of the Kim dynasty which has ruled the impoverished nation since its creation in 1948.
The North says the launch will be a historic occasion for all Koreans. It has blasted South Korea for a "smear campaign" against the plan, and said Seoul should have sought Pyongyang's help in its own failed satellite launches.
The South in strongly worded comments Monday accused its neighbour of trying to develop a nuclear-armed missile.
One analyst said Pyongyang seemed to be trying to exploit likely differences over how to respond to its launch.
"Creating divisions within and between its interlocutors has long been a DPRK ploy and with presidential elections in both the US and ROK (South Korea) this fall, what better time to play another round of this time-honoured game?" wrote Ralph Cossa.
Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think-tank, said the announcement may be timed to distract attention from the South's diplomatic success in hosting a nuclear security summit in Seoul next week.
US President Barack Obama is among the world leaders due to attend the summit.
by Park Chan-Kyong Â© 2012 AFP
Date: Mar 20, 2012