updated 3/7/2007 11:47:24 AM ET 2007-03-07T16:47:24

The U.N. nuclear agency shifted its focus from Iran to North Korea on Wednesday, ahead of a visit to Pyongyang next week to prepare for the resumption of inspections after a four-year international standoff.

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The chief of the International Atomic Energy Organization, Mohamed ElBaradei, plans to go to Pyongyang on Tuesday as part of last month’s six-nation agreement committing the North to dismantling its nuclear program and ultimately scrapping 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.

Japan urged North Korea on Wednesday to comply with its international obligations amid reports the two countries had canceled an afternoon session of talks to establish diplomatic relations. The significance of the development was unclear, with Japanese officials saying they expected the discussions in Vietnam to resume Thursday as planned.

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

The IAEA started off its meeting this week in Vienna on the topic of Iran’s refusal 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.

The gathering is expected to recommend partially or fully suspending 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.

Tehran’s chief delegate to the meeting demanded an end to U.N. Security Council “interference” in exchange for clearing up suspicions about its disputed nuclear activities — an apparent attempt to head off new sanctions.

The council agreed on an initial set of sanctions on Dec. 23, but the measures were milder than the West had wanted and took Russian and Chinese reservations into account.

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