North Korea has invited UN inspectors to monitor a nuclear deal with the United States, insisting the pact remains in force despite its shock announcement of an upcoming satellite launch.
Next month’s planned launch, which will violate a United Nations resolution, 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 substantial US food aid for a partial nuclear freeze.
The North, which came under new leadership in December under the young and untested Kim Jong-Un, insists otherwise.
“The satellite launch is one thing and the DPRK-US agreement is another,” its chief nuclear negotiator Ri Yong-Ho said late Monday in Beijing, using the North’s full name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The North will implement its deal with the United States in full, he told reporters, according to video footage aired Tuesday by South Korea’s KBS television.
“In order to implement the agreement, we’ve sent a letter of invitation to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to send inspectors to our country.”
The deal 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 expelled three years ago.
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.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that any IAEA access 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 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 the response 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 Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS think-tank, said the announcement may be timed to distract attention from the South’s diplomatic success in hosting a major nuclear security summit in Seoul next week.
“Pyongyang doesn’t mind being despised, but it hates to be ignored or overshadowed,” he wrote in a commentary.