Meeting on Normalizing Japanese and North Korean Relations Abruptly Canceled

Japan urged North Korea on Wednesday to comply with its international obligations and scrap its nuclear weapons, as a 35-nation meeting of the International Atomic Energy Organization focused on IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's upcoming trip to Pyongyang.

The call by Tokyo came amid news that an afternoon session of bilateral talks aimed at normalizing relations between North Korea and Japan had been abruptly canceled. The significance of the development was unclear, with Japanese officials saying they expected a Thursday session to be held as planned in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Since its start Monday, the IAEA's meeting in Vienna has been overshadowed by Iran's nuclear defiance in refusing to freeze uranium enrichment as demanded by the U.N. Security Council. The five permanent Council members are discussing possible new sanctions against Iran, including a travel ban, an expanded list of people and companies subject to an asset freeze, an arms embargo and trade restrictions — but differences remain, council diplomats said.

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The gathering is expected to approve a recommendation by the agency to partially or fully suspend 23 technical aid programs benefiting Iran, in line with existing Security Council sanctions, and will look at a report by ElBaradei confirming that Iran continues its enrichment activities.

Enrichment is a key issue because it can be used to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads, although Tehran insists it wants to enrich only to low levels used to generate power.

Before that, however, delegates were focusing on the other issue of nuclear concern, North Korea.

ElBaradei plans to go to Pyongyang on March 13 as part of a six-nation agreement committing the North to dismantle its nuclear program, and ultimately scrap its weapons stockpile.

North Korea kicked IAEA monitors out in late 2002, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and reactivating its mothballed nuclear program, which led to its first-ever atomic weapons test in October.

The Feb. 13 deal reached in Beijing calls for North Korea to close its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, allow IAEA monitors back into the country to verify the closure, and then disable all its nuclear facilities.

In return, North Korea would get economic assistance and political incentives, including the creation of a bilateral working group on establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S.

U.N. officials familiar with the North Korea file said the board will likely agree to meet in a special session once ElBaradei returns and — if his report is positive — formally authorize the return of IAEA inspectors to the North.

Japan, in a statement made available to The Associated Press ahead of delivery, urged the North to "implement its measures promptly and fully with a view to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs."

On Iran, Tehran's chief delegate to the meeting called for an end to U.N. Security Council "interference" in exchange for clearing up suspicions about Iran's disputed nuclear activities — an apparent attempt to head off new sanctions.

While Iran has made such offers before, renewing it now seemed to be linked to such moves at the Security Council in New York, even though diplomats involved in a new draft resolution cautioned that any agreement was some time off.

Such deliberations usually pit Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France, which want harsher U.N. punishments than either Moscow or Beijing. While the five nations agreed on an initial set of sanctions on Dec. 23, they were milder than the West had wanted and took Russian and Chinese reservations into account.

An Iranian document said Iran was ready to "negotiate ... for the resolution of outstanding issues with the IAEA ... without the interference" of the Security Council.

Signed by Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's chief representative to the agency, the letter also said the country was ready to "enter a constructive ... negotiation."

The document was dated Feb. 19 but Soltanieh, in a cover letter dated March 2, asked it to be presented in full to the 35 board members of the IAEA.

The offer to negotiate also has been made before by top Iranian officials. But it repeatedly has been rejected by the five permanent Security Council members and Germany — Tehran's key interlocutors on its nuclear program — because the Islamic republic refuses their precondition that it first mothball its enrichment activities. Iranian opposition to freezing first and talking later doomed both previous talks and later attempts to restart them.

Soltanieh, asked if his country feared new sanctions, told the AP that "no country welcomes sanctions" because they mean "more problems for the people and the country." But he added: "This does not mean we will be afraid."

Complete coverage is available in's North Korea Center.