- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

SINGAPORE — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Wednesday with North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun, saying afterward that “the spirit was good” and there was “no standoff.”

The encounter between the two top diplomats, during a meeting of foreign ministers from six countries negotiating the dismantling of the North’s nuclear programs, was the highest-level U.S.-North Korean contact in four years.

“There were no surprises, but it wasn’t a standoff, with people just stating their positions,” Miss Rice told reporters traveling with her to Singapore for the annual meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The North Korea ministerial session was held on the sidelines of the summit and was the first at such a high level. Previously, six-party talks have taken place at a senior working level. Wednesday’s meeting was informal, because it occurred outside its the usual venue, Beijing.

Miss Rice said that most of the discussion, which lasted about 80 minutes, focused on verifying Pyongyang’s recently submitted declaration of its plutonium-related activities as part of its nuclear programs.

Related story: U.S. gives N. Korea no deadline to verify nuke deal

“The spirit was good, because people believe we’ve made progress, but there was also a sense of urgency about moving on,” the secretary said. “We can’t afford to have another hiatus of several months.”

North Korea has so far missed every deadline set by the six parties. Its nuclear declaration, for instance, came nearly six months after it was due.

Despite Miss Rice’s “urgency” comment, however, her chief negotiator said Tuesday that a U.S.-drafted document meant as the basis for verifying the declaration sets no deadline — or any timeline — for completing the verification process.

“The actual verification, which would go alongside phase three, will involve things like sampling. But in order to sample, you need to complete some actions, for example, of disablement,” Christopher Hill said.

“So I don’t think you can commit yourself to a time frame for verification,” he told reporters.

An agreement on a so-called verification protocol would complete the second phase of a deal reached last year among the United States, China, North Korea, Japan, South Korea and China. As part of it, North Korea has shut down and largely disabled its main nuclear reactor and declared its plutonium-related activities.

Miss Rice said she had shaken Mr. Pak’s hand twice. Miss Rice’s predecessor, Colin L. Powell, had coffee with Mr. Pak’s predecessor, Paek Nam-sun, at the 2004 ASEAN summit in Jakarta.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, host of Wednesday’s meeting, said that it was “quite significant.”

“When we look back, we find that, because of this spirit of mutual benefit and win-win progress, we have been able to overcome quite a few difficulties and we have completed the implementation of the initial phase,” Mr. Yang said.

After the North submitted its declaration last month, the Bush administration removed it from the U.S. blacklist of state-sponsors of terrorism and lifted some trade sanctions.

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