- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

SEOUL — North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator was on his way to the United States yesterday for talks on issues that a State Department official said would include the first steps toward the normalization of diplomatic relations.

The trip, which coincides with the first high-level talks between North Korea and South Korea in more than four months, reflects the rapid easing of tensions with President Kim Jong-il’s regime since North Korea agreed this month to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for heavy fuel oil and other concessions.

Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, arrived in Beijing yesterday and was expected in San Francisco tomorrow, a State Department official told The Washington Times. He will continue to New York for talks with his U.S. negotiating counterpart, Christopher Hill, which will likely begin early next week.

At a State Department briefing yesterday, spokesman Sean McCormack said the two would begin a process of normalization described in the nuclear deal concluded with Pyongyang on Feb. 13 in Beijing.

That agreement calls for the two countries to open bilateral talks “aimed at resolving pending bilateral issues and moving toward full diplomatic relations.”

Asked yesterday to confirm that diplomatic normalization would be a part of the New York talks, a State Department official said yes. Normal diplomatic relations typically involve an exchange of ambassadors and related courtesies.

The process to be started in New York also calls for the United States to “begin the process of removing the designation of [North Korea] as a state-sponsor of terrorism and advance the process of terminating the application of the Trading With the Enemy Act with respect to [North Korea].”

Before traveling to New York, Mr. Kim is expected to deliver a speech and meet with private organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The State Department official was not certain how long he would be there.

Travel by North Korean diplomats at the United Nations normally is restricted to a 25-mile radius of Manhattan, although exceptions have been made with State Department permission.

The United States still maintains it does not talk to North Korea outside the context of the six-party negotiations, which involve China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. But the outlines of the Beijing deal were worked out in advance during three days of one-on-one meetings between Mr. Kim and Mr. Hill in Berlin.

The breakthrough was also preceded by negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. Treasury Department, which in September 2005 successfully pressured a bank in Macao to freeze $24 million of Pyongyang’s overseas holdings.

“Changes are being made to lift the sanctions in the Office of Foreign Assets Control,” a source familiar with the U.S. financial community told The Washington Times yesterday. The Office of Foreign Assets Control is tasked with tracking the assets of the United States’ enemies.

“Officials there are saying, ‘If you look at our documents, North Korea, Iran and Cuba were the enemies of the United States,’ ” the source said. ” ‘Going forward, we are looking at Iran and Cuba.’ ”

A South Korean delegation led by Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung, meanwhile, arrived in Pyongyang for what was expected to be four days of talks. It was the first such meeting since North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test in October.

The talks were expected to deal with the implementation of the Feb. 13 accord as well as a resumption of South Korean aid and other North-South economic projects.

The delegates could also discuss South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s call this month for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that halted fighting in the Korean War in 1953.

“The meeting is to create the future of the Korean people and the hope of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Lee said before leaving Seoul. “We will also focus on normalizing the framework of inter-Korean dialogue and discuss ways of establishing a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

In the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, the group was welcomed by Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju and treated to a gala dinner at the flagship Yanggakdo Hotel.

“Now is the time for the two Koreas to step on a springboard planted on firmer ground,” Mr. Pak said, according to pool reports.

Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this report.

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