updated 3/13/2007 6:52:03 PM ET 2007-03-13T22:52:03

North Korea took a small step toward implementing a breakthrough nuclear disarmament agreement on Tuesday, welcoming the chief U.N. nuclear inspector to discuss how the country will shut off its main reactor to stop producing plutonium for bombs.

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Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said he was optimistic relations with the North would improve in the wake of its Feb. 13 agreement with the U.S. and other regional powers to eventually disarm.

"We hope we can make progress in our relationship," ElBaradei said after arriving in Pyongyang, AP Television News reported. "I hope the outcome will be positive."

The visit is the latest sign the North is complying with an agreement for it to take the first steps to disarm since becoming embroiled in an international standoff over its nuclear ambitions in late 2002.

Then, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors after U.S. officials accused the communist nation of running a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of a 1994 disarmament deal.

The North later restarted its main reactor at Yongbyon and is believed to have produced enough plutonium in recent years for as many as a dozen nuclear bombs — including the one it detonated in an underground test blast on Oct. 9.

April 14 deadline
Under the Feb. 13 agreement, North Korea has until April 14 to shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and a reprocessing facility under IAEA monitoring in exchange for an initial shipment of aid.

The North is to eventually receive total assistance worth 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil for abandoning all its nuclear programs. U.S. officials have stressed that must include the alleged uranium enrichment program, which the North has never publicly acknowledged.

Elbaradei was expected to return Wednesday night to Beijing and will brief Chinese officials. He also is likely to meet U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top American envoy to the North Korea arms talks, who was to arrive Wednesday in Beijing.

Hill is also set to meet his counterparts from the two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan this week for working group talks aimed at putting the disarmament agreement into effect. The officials are required to start meeting by Thursday — 30 days after the latest agreement.

Last week, the North held separate working group talks with the U.S. and Japan about normalizing their long-contentious relations.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China would head a group on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, while South Korea would lead the economic and energy cooperation group and Russia would take charge of the group on peace and security in Northeast Asia. A session on economic and energy cooperation will be held at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing on Thursday, the South's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

Full session on Monday
The working group sessions are to be followed by a full session Monday of the six-nation North Korea nuclear talks.

The U.S. also has pledged by Thursday to resolve financial restrictions against a Macau bank where North Korea held accounts. North Korea boycotted the nuclear talks for more than a year after the bank was blacklisted over alleged complicity with the country in counterfeiting and money laundering.

Meanwhile, the North on Tuesday criticized the U.N. Development Program for suspending its work in the country over U.S. allegations that aid funds were diverted to illicit purposes, including the nuclear program.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry called the claims "sheer lies" aimed at tarnishing its image and said it had yet to receive an official explanation for the pullout, according to a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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