- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea predicted yesterday that the North will meet its obligations under the first phase of last month’s agreement to shut down its nuclear programs, but warned that the next stage will be much more difficult.

Christopher Hill said after two days of talks in New York with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, that Pyongyang must “come clean” on its suspected uranium-enrichment efforts before any final disarmament declaration is adopted.

“There was a sense of optimism on both sides that we will get through this 60-day period and will achieve all of our objectives that are set out in the Feb. 13 agreement,” said Mr. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

The North Koreans “are prepared to live up to all their obligations in the 60-day period,” he said. The Feb. 13 accord requires the North to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and allow U.N. inspectors to verify the closure within that time frame.

On a parallel track, Japan and North Korea started their first formal bilateral talks in more than a year today, aiming to end an emotional row over Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese citizens and to normalize relations.

Diplomats meeting in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi agreed to spend today on the issue of the kidnappings in the 1970s and ‘80s and to work tomorrow toward normalizing ties in talks at both the Japanese and North Korean embassies.

Tokyo has refused, due to the kidnapping row, to help fund the landmark Feb. 13 deal struck in Beijing.

Mr. Hill urged the North Koreans, as well as the other four participants in the six-party talks that produced the February agreement — China, South Korea, Japan and Russia — to “immediately get into the next phase” in mid-April and “not lose any momentum.”

He warned that the second stage will be more difficult because it deals with disabling the North’s facilities so that they cannot be turned back on again.

The New York talks marked the beginning of work on normalizing U.S.-North Korean diplomatic relations, one of five working groups set up by the Feb. 13 deal. All five must meet by mid-March and Mr. Hill said some of them may be pushing the deadline.

Other groups dealing with denuclearization, energy and economic assistance, and Northeast Asian security will convene in Beijing next week.

The foreign ministers of all six countries are expected to meet in Beijing in mid-April.

Mr. Hill said he and Mr. Kim had held an “in-depth discussion” of the historical and legal aspects of establishing diplomatic relations and taking the North off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

“I wanted to understand better what happened in the 1990s from their perspective, when there was discussion of opening liaison offices” in both capitals, he said.

He added that Mr. Kim had raised a possible visit to Pyongyang by Mr. Hill “in general terms,” but they made no plans. In July, Mr. Hill told The Washington Times that he would not go to North Korea while the Yongbyon reactor is still operating.

Yesterday, he echoed a call by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte for North Korea to declare its uranium program during the second phase of the Feb. 13 deal in order to maintain trust.

“If, for some reason, it were to conceal its nuclear facilities or not declare facilities, and if they were then discovered at some later date, it would have the effect of undermining confidence in this entire arrangement,” Mr. Negroponte said during a visit to Seoul.

The Bush administration accused the North in 2002 of secretly developing a program to enrich uranium, but recently it has expressed reduced confidence that the program is still operational. The North Koreans have never publicly admitted to having the program, although the administration says they acknowledged it in a private meeting.

In a further sign of thawing relations between Washington and Pyongyang, American tourists have been invited to visit North Korea.

The Beijing-based, British-run agency Koryo Tours announced that, from April 15 to May 15, it has been given permission to take U.S. tourists into the secretive state. This will be only the fourth time U.S. tourists have been allowed to visit North Korea since 1993, the agency said.

The company has privileged access to North Korea. Its contacts have allowed it to make several documentary films in the North, including last year’s “Crossing the Line,” about the last U.S. defector still alive in Pyongyang.

• Andrew Salmon contributed to this report from Seoul.

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