VIENNA, Austria – The U.N. nuclear agency decided Monday against reporting North Korea's defiance to the Security Council, giving the isolated communist country another chance to abandon its covert weapons program and readmit inspectors.
The United States welcomed the decision, which came amid a new diplomatic push to resolve the crisis. North Korea last month threw out U.N. nuclear inspectors and began reviving a nuclear complex that experts say could be used to produce weapons within months.
Reporting the North's defiance to the Security Council could lead to punitive sanctions or other action against Pyongyang.
However, if the North does not reverse course on its nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency will turn to the council, IAEA general director Mohamed ElBaradei told a news conference after an emergency session of the agency's 35-nation board of governors.
"The matter will be referred to the Security Council" if North Korea does not comply, he said. "I hope (North Korea) will seize this opportunity. Compliance and not defiance is the way towards a solution."
The IAEA board did not mention the Security Council in the resolution it adopted Monday. The board demanded the North allow inspectors to return, restore surveillance equipment and seals that it removed from its nuclear facilities and give up "any nuclear weapons program expeditiously and in a verifiable manner."
The resolution did not set a deadline for the North to reply. ElBaradei said he hoped for a reply "in the next few days." He said he would report back to the board in the "next few weeks, and I hope, by that time, I'll be able to report positively on cooperation" by the North.
"There is no deadline, but you see the words `urgent' ... `immediate.' Everyone understands it's days and not weeks" for North Korea to respond, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told The Associated Press. The resolution was passed by consensus, without a vote.
Kenneth Brill, the U.S. delegate to Monday's meeting, called on North Korea "to reverse its current course, to take all steps necessary to come into immediate compliance ... and to eliminate its nuclear weapons program."
The North "has shown complete defiance towards its obligation under the safeguards agreement," ElBaradei said. "This is clearly an unsustainable situation and sets a dangerous precedent."
"Everyone hopes this problem will be resolved soon," ElBaradei said. "Everybody is hoping for a diplomatic solution."
South Korean officials were meeting Monday and Tuesday in Washington with U.S. and Japanese officials to present a compromise plan. Japan's prime minister on Monday promised to help negotiate an end to the crisis.
South Korea also pressed Russia -- one of North Korea's few allies -- to help persuade the North to back down, and Moscow agreed to step up its contacts with Pyongyang. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Monday that Russia wants stability on the Korean peninsula and called for "quiet diplomacy" to defuse tensions.
North Korea lashed out at the United States on Sunday, accusing it of trying to "disarm" the North by pressuring it to scrap its nuclear programs. The isolated country, stung by an energy crisis, insists it needs the power; Washington says the 5-megawatt reactor in question would produce a mere trickle of electricity and could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
North Korea alarmed the world in October by admitting to a U.S. envoy that it had a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 accord.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday that Washington has no intention of negotiating with Pyongyang until it freezes its atomic programs in respect of the 1994 agreement.
Caught in the middle is the Vienna-based IAEA, which maintained two inspectors in North Korea until New Year's Eve, when they left after the North said they were no longer welcome. The agency has monitored a nuclear "safeguards agreement" with North Korea since 1992, when inspections and analysis suggested the North was concealing undeclared plutonium.
"The agency has never had the complete picture regarding (North Korean) nuclear activities and has never been able to provide assurances regarding the peaceful character of its nuclear program," an IAEA fact sheet on North Korea contends.
Last week's expulsions came after the North removed IAEA seals and surveillance cameras from its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, the capital.
ElBaradei, whose agency also leads the hunt for nuclear weaponry in Iraq, said last week its board had held out hope that North Korea would relent and readmit the inspectors. Instead, the country snubbed the agency by failing to respond to a letter of protest sent by ElBaradei.
The IAEA board includes representatives from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States.