U.S. Urges North Korea to End Nuclear Program

The chief U.S. negotiator on the North Korean nuclear issue is making a rare visit to Pyongyang. Christopher Hill is the most senior American official to visit the North Korea capital in five years. Hill will be trying to restart talks on bringing an end to North Korea's nuclear program.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The chief U.S. negotiator on the North Korean nuclear issue is making an unannounced visit to Pyongyang. Christopher Hill is the most senior American official to visit the North Korean capital in five years. He will be trying to restart the six-party talks on bringing an end to North Korea's nuclear program.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering the story from Beijing. Good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Doesn't this visit signal a shift in the Bush administration's strategy in dealing with North Korea?

KUHN: Well, it certainly appears to. I mean, Hill had been invited to Pyongyang by the North Koreans last year and also before that, and reports say that Vice President Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and former U.N. Ambassador Bolton had basically shot down that idea.

But now it appears that the Department of State along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill are in the drivers seat on this issue. So we expected Hill to just be on another shuttle diplomacy tour through the region, stopping in Beijing and Seoul and Tokyo, and all of the sudden we see him on TV showing up at the airport in Pyongyang for negotiations.

MONTAGNE: Well, these talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program, they stalled months ago. Remind us what the major reason for that was.

KUHN: Well, you remember in February the six parties concluded an agreement in which North Korea said it would shut down its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. It would re-invite international inspectors to monitor the process. Now the U.S. made a promise that it would help to unfreeze $25 million in North Korean assets in a bank in Macau, and that ran into a hitch, and the hitch was that this money had been linked to North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering activities and so nobody wanted to take it.

In the end, they managed to overcome this technicality when the Russians said that a Russian bank could take it, and so that now sets the stage for the negotiations to continue. But by this time now, Pyongyang has already long missed its mid-April deadline for shutting down its nuclear reactor.

MONTAGNE: So the talks - besides the U.S. and North Korea, it's South Korea, Japan, Russia and China - likely to resume now?

KUHN: Yes. Christopher Hill says that the talks are likely to resume next month. But first, he says, the U.S. wants North Korea to shut down that nuclear reactor. There already is some movement in this direction. Since the funds were unfrozen, North Korea over the weekend invited inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to Pyongyang to discuss beginning this process, and Pyongyang has been making a lot of positive noises, for example recently to a visiting Philippine foreign minister and through its own state media, that it is committed to implementing the February 13th agreement in shutting down its nuclear facility, as it promised to do.

MONTAGNE: And is the international community close to resolving this issue?

KUHN: Looking at it optimistically, Christopher Hill said that despite the delays, the main nuclear facility could theoretically be completely dismantled by the end of this year, but that is assuming an awful lot. That's assuming that there are no other big delays. It assumes that when North Korea comes up with a list to fully declare all its nuclear assets, it is full and complete. And you know, that is going to be the hard bargaining part in this, and there's no guarantee that even if it shuts down its nuclear reactor, that it will declare everything that it has and that it will give up the bombs that it's already made. So it's clear that we're a long way off from the real sticking points, the real tough part of this process.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

KUHN: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking from Beijing.

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