- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2007

The U.S. Navy’s rescue of a North Korean vessel from pirates figured yesterday in talks between chief American negotiator Christopher R. Hill and his North Korean counterpart, who finalized plans for disabling the North’s main nuclear facility.

A U.S. team was due in the reclusive state today to oversee the disabling process.

Mr. Hill, speaking to reporters in Beijing, confirmed that the nuclear negotiators had discussed an incident Tuesday in which the USS James Williams helped several North Koreans after their vessel, the Dia Hong Dan with 22 sailors and a cargo of sugar, came under pirate attack off the coast of Somalia.

Two gunmen died and three crew members were badly wounded in gunbattles as the North Korean seafarers fought off the attackers, a maritime official was quoted by wire reports as saying.

“Six gunmen were also seriously injured in Tuesday’s heavy fighting,” said Andrew Mwangura, head of the Mombasa, Kenya-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program. The U.S. Navy confirmed that the wounded North Koreans had been taken on board the James Williams to be treated.

Asked about the incident in Beijing, Mr. Hill said he and North Korean chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan had “discussed the events that took place off the coast of Somalia … with the incident involving the attempted takeover of the North Korean vessel by Somali pirates and the intercession of the U.S. Navy vessel.”

Other U.S. officials said it was standard procedure for the Navy to provide humanitarian assistance in such a situation and that the nationality of the North Korean sailors had not influenced the decision to intervene.

Nevertheless, the action appeared likely to have established good will at a critical stage in the negotiations to end Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

“The incident will have a positive impact as a result of the efforts by both the U.S. and North Korea to normalize their diplomatic ties,” said an unidentified South Korean Foreign Ministry official quoted by the Yonhap news agency.

Mr. Hill said yesterday’s talks in Beijing went smoothly and that the American inspection team was on its way to North Korea.

“We weren’t negotiating. We were more comparing notes. We are at a phase now where we’re talking a lot about nuts and bolts,” Mr. Hill said, according to a transcript provided by the State Department.

“There are three facilities in Yongbyon, and there are some procedures that have been agreed on to take apart the equipment there,” he said. “So we think that will begin actually this week. We’ve had two site surveys by some technical teams. So we know precisely what is involved in that and what some of the measures need to be.”

Diplomats close to the negotiations said the heads of delegations in the six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear programs were expected to meet later this month, and that the foreign ministers could meet in mid-December.

Pyongyang has promised to disable Yongbyon and declare all of its nuclear efforts and materials by the end of the year, and to begin dismantling its programs next year in exchange for political and economic incentives, including better relations with the United States.

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