U.S. Open to Bilateral Talks on Ties With N. Korea

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007

BERLIN, Jan. 17 -- If North Korea gives up its nuclear programs, the United States is willing to engage in "a bilateral process" to establish "a normal relationship," the chief U.S. negotiator said here Wednesday after two days of one-on-one talks with his North Korean counterpart.

"We are prepared to go on that road and to really offer North Korea a hand as it moves along the road," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill said in a speech here in the midst of his talks, the first time he has met with senior North Korean officials outside Asia. He said he has been trying to "make sure they understand very clearly what we are intending to do, what our intentions are."

Hill's comments mark the first time a U.S. official has publicly emphasized the possibility of such bilateral discussions, something the Pyongyang government has long sought. Ever since the North Korean nuclear crisis began in 2002, the Bush administration has resisted such negotiations, preferring to work through a somewhat cumbersome forum that also includes China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

The question of how normalization would take place was contentious during the negotiations that led to a September 2005 joint statement, in which North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear programs. The U.S. delegation specifically sought the removal of the word "dialogue" from the section describing the normalization of relations from the final draft of the statement.

Critics of the administration have urged it to provide North Korea more detail on possible enticements for giving up its weapons program. Hill's comments appeared to be part of an effort to flesh out the details.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was briefed by Hill on the talks after she arrived here from Kuwait for discussions with German officials on the Middle East. Asked at a news conference about Hill's statement, Rice emphasized the 2005 document, noting that it would "lead to a bilateral, a normalization of relations."

The agreement "is very clearly in the context of the denuclearization -- complete, verifiable denuclearization, and I should say irreversible denuclearization -- to the Korean Peninsula," Rice said. "We believe that the six-party context might allow that evolution to take place."

Hill also noted the September 2005 agreement in his speech, which was organized at the American Academy in Berlin. But the final draft of the agreement is vague about the process of normalization.

The key sentence, using the abbreviation for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, said, "The DPRK and the United States undertook to respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies." That sentence was crafted after the United States balked at a version referring to "bilateral policies and dialogue."

On Wednesday, Hill said that "we have an adequate bilateral mechanism within the six-party talks to exchange our views with the North Koreans." The comment appeared to refer to the increasingly frequent meetings he has held with his counterpart, Kim Gye Gwan, when the six-party sessions were not taking place. Previously, the meetings with Kim were held in Beijing, generally in preparation for another round of six-party talks, but no new round is currently scheduled.

At the last round of six-nation talks in December, North Korean officials balked at substantive discussions, insisting that the United States lift punitive measures intended to halt alleged money-laundering operations.

Rice flew to Germany after four days in the Middle East, visiting Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Germany currently holds both the rotating presidency of the European Union and the chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, giving it substantial diplomatic clout in the first half of the year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it known she is eager to elevate the European role in the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Rice will fly to London on Thursday to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and plans to return to Washington on Friday.

Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.


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