N. Korea, U.S. talks ‘just a first step’

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The State Department yesterday ruled out “immediate results” from U.S.-North Korea talks on establishing full diplomatic relations, which officials said will take place on Monday and Tuesday in New York.

U.S. intelligence officials, meanwhile, said the North has taken preliminary steps to shut down its main nuclear reactor, as required by a Feb. 13 agreement under which it would scrap its atomic programs in exchange for about $300 million in aid.

The deal, signed in Beijing by the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, also calls for a “working group” to begin work on several bilateral issues — including diplomatic relations — within the next two weeks.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack yesterday confirmed a report in The Washington Times that the normalization of relations would figure prominently in the New York talks.

“I would caution you that this meeting is just a first step; it’s an initial conversation,” he said. “Don’t look at it as a meeting that is going to produce immediate results. Nobody is going to come out the front door and wave a piece of paper with some agreement on it.”

The talks will be conducted by the two countries’ chief nuclear negotiators, Christopher Hill and Kim Kye-gwan. Mr. Kim is expected to arrive in San Francisco today and meet with nongovernmental groups in the San Francisco Bay Area before heading to New York tomorrow.

North Korea has also invited Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to Pyongyang for talks on dismantling the North’s nuclear facilities.

On Capitol Hill, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said on Tuesday that recent information and analysis show the North has taken initial steps to close its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

“There are parts of this nuclear program that we have to pay a lot of attention to, to see if we have the kind of disclosure and the inspection capabilities that we are looking for,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Joseph DeTrani, mission manager for North Korea in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the United States will continue to insist that the North declare all of its nuclear programs, including the suspected enrichment of uranium.

Pyongyang has never admitted publicly to having such a program, though U.S. officials insist the North Koreans acknowledged it when confronted with evidence in 2002.

Mr. DeTrani said the U.S. has “high confidence” that North Korea was acquiring materials for a production-scale enrichment program in 2002. The assessment of the program’s continued existence is “at the mid-confidence level,” he said.

The six-party talks, which produced the Feb. 13 agreement, began in 2003 but were dogged by repeated North Korean boycotts. The last one followed Washington’s successful effort in 2005 to persuade a Macau bank to freeze about $24 million in North Korean assets.

Mr. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, indicated yesterday that the Treasury Department may be ready to ease those restrictions, saying that such a development “will not solve all of North Korea’s problems with the international financial system.”

“It must stop its illicit conduct and improve its international financial reputation in order to do that,” Mr. Hill told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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