Seoul (AFP) Jun 24, 2007
US envoy Christopher Hill said Friday he had "useful and positive" talks on a rare visit to North Korea and the regime was prepared to shut down the reactor at the heart of its nuclear programme. Hill -- the most senior US official to visit the communist state in nearly five years -- said they had agreed on the need to swiftly implement a February agreement on disarmament.
"The DPRK (North Korea) indicated they are prepared to promptly shut down the Yongbyon facility as called for by the February agreement," he said in Seoul after his two-day visit to Pyongyang.
"They also said they are prepared to disable the Yongbyon facility," he said."
In Pyongyang, Hill met with North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun and Kim Kye-Gwan, its chief envoy to the six-nation forum that drew up the February 13 accord.
Under that agreement, hammered out after a surge in tensions following the North's first nuclear weapons test last year, Pyongyang promised to shut down the Yongbyon plant in return for energy aid and diplomatic concessions.
"Both of us reaffirmed our commitment to the February agreement and to the complete fulfillment of that February agreement," Hill said.
"We discussed all elements of the February agreement and we also had a look ahead to what we have to do in the future to keep the process going and to really restore the sense of momentum and dynamism that will take us to the end game, which is a complete denuclearisation."
The complete denuclearisation includes the North's declaration of all its nuclear programmes, including a highly-enriched uranium programme that prompted the 2002 nuclear crisis.
"We did discuss the need to have a comprehensive list of all nuclear programmes. All means all," Hill said, indicating he touched on the issue.
He said both sides wanted an early meeting of nuclear negotiators -- early July is seen as a possibility -- followed by ministerial-level talks grouping the six sides -- the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
South Korea's chief nuclear envoy said after meeting Hill that North Korea indicated it would take part in such meetings.
Hill's visit came ahead of the scheduled arrival next week of inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog -- the first time they will have been back since being kicked out in late 2002 -- to discuss how to shut down Yongbyon.
Some analysts here say Hill's trip indicated the reclusive regime had made a strategic decision to push forward with the six-nation deal.
"The visit to Pyongyang is a highly significant development," Paik Haksoon, an analyst with the Sejong Institute, said.
"By inviting Hill, Pyongyang is sending a strong signal that it is firmly committed to implementing the February deal."
But Foreign Minister Taro Aso of Japan, which has taken the hardest line in negotiating with the North, voiced scepticism.
"Honestly, my feeling is, 'Does this really lead to six-way talks?'," Aso asked. "They must not go there in haste to get stared down," he said. "I don't want them to yield easily."
Progress on implementing the February agreement has been slowed by a hitch over the return of North Korean funds frozen in a Macau bank, but the assets have now been unblocked.
The remittance via Russia will be completed Friday, a Russian diplomat was quoted as saying by Moscow's Itar-Tass news agency.
Pending confirmation of the transfer, however, a North Korean official in Vienna, where the International Atomic Energy Agency is based, said Pyongyang had not yet given the final go-ahead for the UN inspectors to come back.
In another development, South Korea said it would announce a timetable next week for the shipment of 400,000 tons of rice aid to the impoverished North.
earlier related report
US chief nuclear envoy Christopher Hill's sudden visit to Pyongyang last week is the latest surprise by the administration, which has previously refused to engage directly with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons drive.
Bush himself has stopped ridiculing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il after calling him "pygmy," "tyrant" and "a dangerous man," among other epithets, that led to Pyongyang spewing even more venom on the US president.
"Clearly, Chris Hill, Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice and the president himself realize that North Korea is one chance for its true foreign policy victory," said Joseph Cirincione, a top US nuclear expert.
"They are not going to have a victory in Iraq or Iran or the Middle East peace," said Cirincione, who once advised Congress on non-proliferation issues.
"North Korea is the only issue where I could see the administration claiming that their foreign policy agenda has actually worked."
But there is no guarantee yet that North Korea will end its nuclear drive, and critics are already saying that Hill's trip signals to the Stalinist state that it has the upper hand in the protracted nuclear negotiations.
"I think it is poor diplomacy," John Bolton, former US envoy to the United Nations and former Bush administration hawk, told AFP.
"This shows to the North Koreans that the State Department is desperate for something that they can call a success and that gives North Korea more leverage to extract more concessions," he said.
Bolton speculated that part of Pyongyang's goal was to stretch the negotiations past the 2008 US presidential election "in hopes of getting an even weaker administration after this."
"My guess is that North Korea will continue its usual pattern of trying to renegotiate" a February 13 deal reached at six-party talks among United States, China, Russia, the two Koreas and Japan.
Hill emphasized that the North Koreans assured him that they would shut down and "disable" their key nuclear reactor under the accord, aimed at ending the regime's nuclear weapons program in return for aid and other guarantees.
A positive signal came on Friday when United Nations atomic agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei announced that UN nuclear inspectors would go to North Korea on Tuesday to discuss how to shut down the Yongbyon reactor.
It will be the first visit by UN inspectors since they were kicked out in late 2002.
Another sign of progress was over the 25 million dollars of allegedly illicit North Korean funds frozen since 2005 in a Macau bank, the Banco Delta Asia (BDA), on American-instigated sanctions.
The US Treasury says it blacklisted BDA on suspicion it was handling the proceeds of North Korean money-laundering and counterfeiting.
Pyongyang had refused to comply with the denuclearization pact until it received all the money, insisting on a transfer rather than a withdrawal to prove it has regained access to the international banking system.
US officials bent over backwards to transfer the tainted funds, even using its own bank, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a complex transaction.
It took months for Washington to clear obstacles preventing the money's return, a move -- according to the New York Times -- fiercely opposed by administration hawks.
"America's serial concessions on BDA simply confirm to Pyongyang that (the) State (Department) is well into the 'save the deal' mode, which bodes well for future North Korean efforts to recast it," Bolton said.
"Consider the sequence of administration positions on BDA: Initially, the criminal investigation and the nuclear issue were not supposed to be connected, but the North insisted and the US gave in," he said.
When Bush first came into the White House in 2001, his foreign policy was dominated by neo conservatives, who rejected the entire notion of negotiating with what they called "evil" regimes such as North Korea.
"The fundamental issue that faced the administration from the beginning was whether the object was to overthrow the regime or end the nuclear program, and for some the nuclear program was the issue they would use to change the regime," Cirincione said.
"That approach has failed in Iraq, North Korea and is failing in Iran. What you are seeing is now a recognition by the pragmatists in the administration that that approach is fatally flawed and have to be changed."
Source: Agence France-Presse
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US Chief Negotiator On Surprise North Korea Visit
Seoul (AFP) Jun 21, 2007
US negotiator Christopher Hill flew to North Korea Thursday to push for swift progress on nuclear disarmament, though a Pyongyang official hinted a planned visit by a UN watchdog may be delayed. Hill's mission at Pyongyang's invitation is the highest-level US visit for nearly five years and follows an apparent breakthrough in implementing a February deal to scrap the communist nation's nuclear programmes.
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