The crisis caused by North Korea’s refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions is deepening and needs to be resolved as soon as possible, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Wednesday.

“This has been a pending issue for 12 years, and frankly it is getting worse,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei told Reuters in an interview.

“We need to address the whole question and bring it to a resolution,” he said. “I would certainly hope that by the end of the year we should be there.”

Communist North Korea has been locked in a stand-off with its neighbors and the United States over its nuclear program since 2002. Pyongyang has refused to return to six-country talks on dismantling its nuclear programs unless Washington drops what the North says is a “hostile policy.”

ElBaradei said he hoped 2005 would see a return of IAEA inspectors to North Korea to conduct rigorous inspections that would provide guarantees to the world that all North Korean nuclear facilities and activities are under U.N. safeguards.

The IAEA team was expelled on Dec. 31, 2002 and has not been allowed to return. Since that time, North Korea has produced enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear weapons, the IAEA and a number of security think-tanks estimate.

“I would like to see the six-party talks restarted as early as possible,” ElBaradei said.

“I’d like to see by the end of the year a package agreement that takes care of the nuclear activities in North Korea and makes sure it is all under irreversible verification, that their security concerns are taken care and their humanitarian needs addressed.”

The participants in the six-party talks are the United States, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea.

The United States listed North Korea, Iran and pre-war Iraq as an “axis of evil” determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Washington has also accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program. But ElBaradei said it was North Korea, not Iran, that posed the greatest nuclear threat to the world.

“I hope we can start to move on the Korean issue, which is the number one proliferation threat we are facing,” he said.

Asked if the fact North Korea is widely believed to possess several nuclear weapons changed anything, ElBaradei said it did not.

“It makes it more urgent, but it doesn’t change things. South Africa had nuclear weapons and they dismantled their program. So it’s an issue we are capable of dealing with once there’s an agreement,” he said.

Originally publisehd by Reuters, Vienna