- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

BERLIN — The United States and North Korea are meeting one on one this week, discussing Pyongyang’s nuclear programs outside of six-nation talks for the first time in more than four years in hopes of ending a stalemate before the next round of negotiations in Beijing, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Washington’s chief negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye-gwan, met for six hours at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on Tuesday, and again for an hour and a half at the North Korean Embassy yesterday. Mr. Hill said a third meeting was likely today.

“You can assume, when you have six hours of conversation, and you are going to have some more this afternoon and probably tomorrow morning, you can certainly characterize them as useful discussions,” he told the American Academy in Berlin yesterday morning.

The Bush administration has for years resisted calls from critics for it to meet bilaterally with the North Koreans. Presidential candidate John Kerry tried to distinguish himself from President Bush during a 2004 debate by proposing to hold one-on-one talks.

But Mr. Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived here yesterday after five days in the Middle East, played down the significance of the Berlin meetings, saying they were only trying to prepare the ground for the next round of six-party talks.

“We had a round at the end of December in which I felt we could have done more, and this was an occasion to talk to the North Koreans and to see what we can do in the next round,” Mr. Hill said, according to a transcript released last night by the State Department.

Miss Rice told reporters after meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: “We want to make sure that the next round of six-party talks is fully prepared, so we can make progress there.”

Mr. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, insisted that any deal-making would take place within the six-party process.

“By having an exchange of views with the North Koreans, it is not our intention to reduce the other four participants to bystanders,” he said in reference to Japan, China, South Korea and Russia.

But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the lack of progress during the multilateral discussions and the direct U.S.-North Korea meetings this week suggested that any deal will have to be negotiated essentially between Washington and Pyongyang.

“The impasse is between those two parties,” he said. “What really matters is the extent to which Hill and Kim have running room to strike a deal.”

Mr. Hill said he hopes the six-party talks will resume before the end of the month in Beijing, their usual venue. He has met with Mr. Kim one on one several times before, but this week’s sessions are the first outside the Chinese capital.

The six-party process began in 2003. The last time U.S. and North Korean officials met directly before that was in Pyongyang in October 2002, when the Americans confronted their hosts with information about a secret uranium-enrichment program. The North’s plutonium program had been frozen in a 1994 deal known as the Agreed Framework.

The six nations signed a joint statement on Sept. 19, 2005, committing to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in exchange for political and economic incentives for the North.

But Pyongyang boycotted the talks for more than a year after Washington persuaded a Macao bank to freeze North Korean accounts that it said were being used for money-laundering and the financing of other illicit activities.

The North has refused to begin implementing the Sept. 19 agreement before the United States eases the financial sanctions, which Russia has supported.

Mr. Hill signaled that Washington might be considering a gesture on those penalties, noting that Treasury Department officials will meet with the North Koreans next week. They met in Beijing last month.

Asked yesterday whether “a loosening of financial sanctions” could be used as a confidence-building measure, he said: “You are getting right into the heart of the negotiation.”

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