US holds one-to-one talks with North Korea, say "real progress" needed
AFP | July 25 2005
The United States and communist North Korea held a rare one-on-one meeting Monday, with the American side stressing it was time "real progress" was made in ending the North's drive for nuclear weapons.
The contact came a day before the reopening of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear arms programs that were broken off last year.
With Washington hinting it might soften its tough stance on North Korea to break the deadlock when the talks resume Tuesday, top US negotiator Christopher Hill said the two sides needed to review the situation.
"I want to stress these are not negotiations. We are just trying to get acquainted, to review how we see things coming up and compare notes," Hill told reporters before the 75-minute talks started.
It was the first time that the US and North Korea have held bilateral contacts before the six-party process, which seeks an end to the North's nuclear arms drive in return for diplomatic and economic benefits.
The six-way talks have been held three times before, ending inconclusively each time.
North Korea abandoned the talks last year and has since claimed it already possesses nuclear weapons, heightening tension over what the International Atomic Energy Agency calls the world's most dangerous nuclear proliferation issue.
"We have to produce an agreement this time. There was a dialogue conscious of such a goal," a South Korean government official said after his nation's talks with the US delegation.
In a flurry of diplomacy before the formal opening of the talks, North Korea met South Korea on Sunday and Russia on Monday while the United States sat down with the other nations in the six-way negotiations, China and Japan.
Hill said the purpose of the bilateral meetings was to "make sure we're all in agreement that we need to make some real progress".
"This is a very very important round of the six-party process and we need to really push as hard as we can," he said after meeting the Japan delegation.
With no progress in the previous rounds of talks, the United States has signalled greater flexibility as it enters what is considered a crucial round after the 13-month deadlock.
A change in US rhetoric, including President George W. Bush's polite reference to the North Korean leader as "Mister Kim Jong Il," helped woo the Stalinist regime back to the bargaining table.
Bush had previously lumped North Korea in with Iran and pre-war Iraq as an "axis of evil."
On arrival Sunday, Hill stopped short of predicting any immediate success but said his team was "ready to roll up our sleeves and do our best to make sure we achieve some progress".
Japan's Kyodo news agency said the US was ready to set up a liaison office -- the lowest level of diplomatic representation -- in Pyongyang if it abandons its nuclear program.
Hill did not deny the report when questioned about it.
The United States under President Bill Clinton mentioned the liaison office proposal in 1994 when it negotiated the building of civilian reactors in exchange for North Korea suspending its existing nuclear facilities.
North Korea has said the United States must establish diplomatic relations with it and offer assurances of non-aggression for progress to be made at the talks.
The standoff was sparked in October 2002 when Washington accused the North of operating a nuclear weapons program based on enriched uranium in violation of a 1994 agreement.
The last round of talks collapsed in June 2004 when North Korea rejected a US offer which would have required an up-front pledge to dismantle all its nuclear programs before it could get energy and other assistance.
The North instead wanted a step-by-step approach, fearing it could come under attack by the United States.
On Friday, it called for a peace treaty with the United States to replace an armistice reached at the end of the Korean War in 1953, saying this could persuade it to drop its nuclear program.
On the table this time is an offer by South Korea to provide the North with 500,000 tonnes of rice and to route some 2,000 megawatts of electricity to the isolated regime.