N Korea raises nuclear stakes: Pyongyang signals it may renege on last week's inspection agreement

NORTH KOREA imposed a further delay on inspection of its nuclear facilities yesterday as it sought to wring concessions from the United States. As governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began meeting in Vienna yesterday, Pyongyang announced it would keep the agency's inspectors out until after talks in New York later this week between US and North Korean diplomats.

Continuing its game of brinkmanship with the international community, North Korea is warning that it might cancel last week's agreement to allow inspectors into its seven declared nuclear sites if this leads to demands to examine two suspected nuclear waste dumps. Experts believe that if they were allowed into these sites, they would be able to determine whether North Korea has been extracting plutonium to build nuclear weapons.

The US responded by saying it would not set a date for resuming the talks until the inspections begin. 'We have indicated publicly and they certainly know that we're willing to discuss the date for the third round (of talks) when inspections have commenced,' said Mike McCurry, the State Department spokesman.

After preventing full inspection for just over a year, Pyongyang appeared to back down last week in the face of growing pressure. The US was threatening to station Patriot anti-missile defences in South Korea, and the IAEA governors were expected to refer North Korea's case to the UN Security Council for possible economic sanctions. The IAEA director-general, Hans Blix, said the agency had received a telex from North Korea at the weekend expressing the hope that the inspection could take place 'at an early date', but linking their arrival to contacts with the US.

Mr Blix said IAEA video cameras at North Korea's declared nuclear sites had been out of action for many months. Experts are due to carry out tests, change film in the monitoring cameras and change seals at the sites, mostly at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. A spokesman said the governing board would not debate the North Korean question until tomorrow, the last day of its meeting.

Having staved off immediate action, however, Kim Il Sung's Stalinist regime is seeking to extract the maximum advantage for the minimum concessions. It is insisting that it has agreed to one-off scrutiny, not a resumption of the IAEA's normal inspection regime, a distinction intended to give it as much bargaining room as possible in the talks with the US.

Apart from the ultimate aim of American diplomatic recognition, North Korea is likely to demand the withdrawal of the Patriots threat and the cancellation of joint US-South Korean military exercises, held every spring under the code name 'Team Spirit', which Pyongyang regards as a preparation for war.