- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

U.S. and North Korean negotiators began two days of groundbreaking talks yesterday in New York as part of a deal to end the North’s nuclear-weapons programs in exchange for aid and normalization of relations.

Bush administration officials were trying to tamp down expectations of a major breakthrough, saying difficult issues such as U.S. financial sanctions and designation of Pyongyang as an official sponsor of terrorism will require many negotiating sessions.

“I would caution that this is a first meeting and that it is more about setting the norms on how this working group will proceed,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack yesterday.

Still, the meeting of North Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill represents the highest-level negotiation between the two countries on U.S. soil since 2000, and a sharp change in relations with a country President Bush once included in his “axis of evil.”

The meeting occurs three weeks after a breakthrough in the “six-party talks” in Beijing, which established a schedule for the North to scrap its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions from the United States and its allies. Also taking part in the talks were South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

The North enters the U.S. talks under fresh economic pressure as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced yesterday it was suspending all work in the country because of concerns Pyongyang was diverting aid money to other purposes.

The highly unusual suspension affects some 20 projects with a budget of more than $4 million dealing with food security, biodiversity and economic management, UNDP officials said. Eight UNDP staff members in the country may be withdrawn if the North fails to answer the charges of misuse, the agency said.

Mr. Kim and Mr. Hill had a working dinner last night, and the two delegations will have a full day of talks today, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. and North Korean delegations make up one of five “working groups” created by last month’s deal. Under a timeline of step-by-step concessions, the talks are supposed to lead in the end to full diplomatic ties between Pyongyang and Washington.

The first deadline in the deal, set for April 13, calls for the North to shut down its nuclear-reactor plant at Yongbyon and allow U.N. inspectors expelled from the country four years ago to return. Mohamed ElBaradei, the top U.N. nuclear-nonproliferation official, plans to visit Pyongyang next week.

In exchange, the United States and its allies will provide the strapped North Korean economy with 50,000 tons of fuel oil, with pledges of up to 1 million tons on tap if the North follows through on all its disarmament promises.

Mr. Kim met with U.S. specialists on Korea in San Francisco and again in New York in private sessions before his meetings with Mr. Hill. He also met with South Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, in New York over the weekend.

A second working group involving North Korea and Japan begins two days of talks tomorrow in Hanoi, Reuters news agency reported. Japanese officials said they will press the North to resolve the emotional issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, saying there can be no full normalization of ties until the question is resolved.

Japan has urged the United States to hold off on removing North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries until the abduction issue is resolved.

Mr. McCormack said there have been “initial bureaucratic discussions” within the U.S. government on removing North Korea from that list, a necessary step before normalization can occur. The Bush administration has also promised to resolve financial sanctions imposed on the North.

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, who has emerged as a leading critic of the six-party deal, said in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece yesterday that the North’s “aggressive mendacity” in violating past arms deals made it vital that any deal struck now be closely monitored and verified.

Without strong oversight, “what is already a bad deal will become a dangerous deal,” he warned.

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