Beijing/Seoul: China on Tuesday urged North Korea to accept international nuclear monitors, as the reclusive country itself had suggested, amid a tense standoff with the South.
China, North Korea`s only major ally, has continually urged dialogue to resolve the crisis and has been reluctant to blame the country for the shelling of a South Korean island last month, in which two Marines and two civilians were killed.
South Korea held further live-fire drills on the island on Monday, raising fears of all-out war, but the North did not retaliate. Instead, if offered to accept nuclear inspectors it has kicked out of the country before.
"North Korea has the right to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes, but also at the same time must allow IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors in," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing when asked about North Korea`s offer.
"All parties should realize that artillery fire and military force cannot solve the issues on the peninsula, and dialogue and cooperation are the only correct approaches."
North Korea promised to allow in inspectors to make sure it is not processing highly enriched uranium, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said on his return from a trouble-shooting visit to Pyongyang. He told reporters North Korea had shown a "pragmatic attitude" in his unofficial talks.
"The specifics are that they will allow IAEA personnel to go to Yongbyon to ensure that they are not processing highly enriched uranium, that they are proceeding with peaceful purposes," Richardson said, referring to the North`s main nuclear site.
Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University in Seoul said the North`s offer was a "usual tactic" that had worked in the past.
"They create a crisis, they show that they are dangerous and drive tensions high," he said. "Then they show they could make some concessions. The question that remains is whether this is the only facility. A uranium enrichment programme is much easier to hide than a plutonium one."
If IAEA inspectors were allowed to carry out such monitoring, it could help to address a key concern about North
Korea`s uranium enrichment work because highly enriched material can be used in atomic weapons.
The Yongbyon complex is at the heart of the North`s plutonium weapons programme. It consists of a five-megawatt reactor, whose construction began in 1980, a fuel fabrication facility and a plutonium reprocessing plant, where weapons-grade material is extracted from spent fuel rods.
A uranium enrichment programme would give Pyongyang a second way to obtain fissile material for making atomic bombs.
North Korea, which has refused full IAEA oversight since 2002 and expelled inspectors last April, has said it only wants to enrich uranium to the low level used to make fuel for a civilian atomic power programme.
But in order to check this, the IAEA would need continued, unfettered access to all of North Korea`s uranium enrichment activities. It would usually require frequent inspections, video cameras and special seals to ensure that none of the nuclear material is being diverted for military use.
South Korea and the United States suspect North Korea has been secretly enriching uranium at new locations outside Yongbyon.
Richardson said of the North`s offer: "I believe that`s an important gesture on their part, but there still has to be a commitment eventually by the North Koreans to denuclearize, to abide by the 2005 agreement that says they will terminate their nuclear weapons activities."
"...Now there has to be deeds and not words," he said. "But it`s up to governments to move forward with the agreements that we`ve made, and it`s time for citizen-diplomats like myself to step aside and let governments move forward."
He told CNN the offer might pave the way for the resumption of six-party talks which also involve the United States, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea -- although Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been cool to this idea, reluctant to reward perceived bad behavior.
"Maybe now is the time for the six-party countries to reach out to North Korea and say, `OK, let`s get down to business,`" Richardson said on CNN.
A key South Korean government official said the recent aggression by the North was closely linked to the succession from ailing leader Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, and was intended for its domestic audience as much as for anybody.