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US And North Korea Begin Thaw In Relations

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu DaWei (C) joins hands with US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill (R) and Vice Foreign Minister of North Korea Kim Kye Gwan (L). North Korea has agreed to shut down key nuclear facilities within two months in exchange for badly needed fuel, part of a broad agreement aimed at ending the regime's controversial nuclear program. Photo courtesy AFP
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Mar 05, 2007
Landmark US-North Korea talks on normalizing relations were to get underway Monday amid questions in Washington over whether US intelligence had exaggerated Pyongyang's nuclear threat. US officials were cautioning that the talks in New York are only a small first step towards establishing diplomatic ties and that North Korea needs to meet a series of denuclearization benchmarks in order to end a half century of enmity between the two states.

Washington's chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, will kick off the meetings with a dinner Monday night at a New York hotel and then hold a full day of talks on Tuesday, US officials said.

The talks come as the International Atomic Energy Agency said the UN atomic watchdog's chief Mohamed ElBaradei will travel to North Korea on March 13 to discuss how to monitor its promised dismantling of nuclear facilities.

"The plan is for Dr. ElBaradei to arrive in Beijing on March 12 and leave for North Korea on the 13th for a two-day visit," spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

The bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang meet a long-standing condition set by the reclusive communist regime for abandoning its nuclear ambitions, and could bring the two sides the closest ever since Korea was divided in the wake of World War II.

But they come amid controversy in Washington over whether US intelligence agencies overstated Pyongyang's alleged secret uranium enrichment program in 2002, and whether the agencies' ability to provide information on the North is adequate and reliable.

"We still don't have the intelligence community overall to give us, as policymakers, the information that we need to make good decisions in North Korea, Iran and other places," Republican Representative Peter Hoekstra said Sunday.

"You always make policy with imprecise information, but you know, there are some things that we've been disappointed with," he told the Fox News Sunday program.

"It's a concern about the leadership in the intelligence community, not the folks who are working this 24/7," Hoekstra added.

The talks Monday come as part of the six-nation deal reached February 13 to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Under the multi-phase agreement, North Korea said it would shut down its main nuclear facility and begin steps towards giving up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for some 300 million dollars in aid and moves towards "full diplomatic relations" with the US.

While the rapid start to those normalization talks took many by surprise -- in 2002 President George W. Bush branded North Korea part of the "axis of evil" -- US officials stressed that the talks would yield no breakthroughs. "Don't look at it as a meeting that's going to produce immediate results," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack last week.

He said the talks were more likely to focus on "organizational" issues like setting a framework and agenda for what are hoped will be ongoing discussions.

But observers of Bush administration foreign policy said this week's meetings turned an important page for Washington.

"In and of itself the meeting Monday is historic," said Joseph Cirincione, a North Korea and non-proliferation expert at the Center for American Progress.

Cirincione said the talks showed that, "In the end, the relationship with the US matters more to the North Koreans than their nuclear weapons."

But amid US lawmakers there was lingering concern over whether Washington could obtain enough and reliable information about what the Koreans are up to.

Last week Joseph DeTrani, the North Korea mission manager for the Directorate of National Intelligence told a Congress panel that US spy agencies are less confident now than they were in 2002 about accusations that Pyongyang was secretly enriching uranium.

"We still have confidence that the program is in existence -- at the mid-confidence level," told the US Senate Armed Services Committee.

The US accusations in 2002 that the North was running a secret uranium program, in addition to its declared plutonium-based nuclear operation, led to the collapse of a 1994 denuclearization deal with Pyongyang.

Subsequent tit-for-tat actions led to Pyongyang's atomic bomb test in October 2006, a move that some officials say might have been avoided.

On Sunday De Trani complained in a written statement about "considerable misinterpretation" of what he had told the panel.

"We have continued to assess efforts by North Korea since 2002," he said. "All intelligence community agencies have at least moderate confidence that North Korea's past efforts to acquire a uranium enrichment capability continue today."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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US To Build Nuclear Warhead Using New Design
Washington (AFP) March 02, 2007
The United States said Friday it had selected the design of next-generation nuclear warheads, a step toward the construction of new bombs for the sea-based nuclear arsenal to replace aging Cold War-era stock. The government chose a design by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California over a competing design by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for the project, the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said in a statement.

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