N. Korea, U.S. to Discuss Normalizing Relations

U.S. and North Korean negotiators are to meet this weekend in Geneva to talk about normalizing ties. Now that North Korea has shut down a key nuclear facility, the United States says it will keep its end of the bargain and discuss ways to improve relations with the communist nation.

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American negotiators are to meet North Korean negotiators this weekend in Geneva, Switzerland. They're going to talk about normal relations. This working group grew out of the six-party disarmament talks. Now that North Korea has shut down a key nuclear facility, the U.S. says it will keep up its end of the bargain and discuss ways to improve relations with the secretive communist nation.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Nothing is easy about negotiating North Korea's nuclear disarmament. U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill had a hard time saying how far along this process is, even after North Korea shut down its facilities at Yongbyon.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HILL (Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs): Once we're done, I'll look back and tell you where we were now. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELEMEN: After joking with reporters yesterday afternoon, he said he is beyond first steps.

Mr. HILL: Getting Yongbyon, which is not the totality of what we're dealing with, but getting Yongbyon shut down is an important step. And I don't want to minimize that, but I certainly don't want to suggest that that puts us halfway there.

KELEMEN: Hill is still waiting for North Korea to declare all of its nuclear programs and answer the many questions Washington has about a suspected highly enriched uranium program. Hill's talks in Geneva with his North Korean counterpart are supposed to focus on bilateral issues such as North Korea's desire to get off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But Hill says the nuclear issue is overarching.

Mr. HILL: Normalization is the goal, but you know, normalization is also going to depend on denuclearization. I mean, we, you know, cannot be in a position of normalizing relations with a nuclearized North Korea, and we won't do that.

KELEMEN: His diplomatic push marks a new more pragmatic approach by the Bush administration, but there are some detractors, including John Bolton, who took a hard line on North Korea when he was in the State Department.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control): It's a charade. It gives the North Koreans the one thing they can't buy otherwise, which is time. Time is on their side and they know it.

KELEMEN: The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and former undersecretary of state for arms control says he sees no sign the North Koreans will give up their nuclear weapons.

Mr. BOLTON: I still have hope the president will see the North Koreans, as he has from the outset of his administration, as a dictatorship whose behavior is not going to change, and that it will be confirmed - I have faith in the North Koreans in that regard - it will be confirmed they're not going to give up their nuclear weapons, and the president may yet repudiate this agreement.

KELEMEN: But others who have been involved in the talks have a much different view. Victor Cha was, until this summer, the president's adviser on Asia, and he worked with Christopher Hill on the North Korea negotiations.

Mr. VICTOR CHA (Director for Asian Affairs, National Security Council): I don't think anybody in the administration walks into this with rose-colored glasses and presumes that North Korea all of a sudden is willing to give up their nuclear weapons. I think everybody enters this negotiation, you know, very skeptical of North Korean intentions.

KELEMEN: But he says the U.S. needs to test North Korean intentions. Some analysts say this has become a legacy issue for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but Cha, now back on the faculty at Georgetown University, says there were other reasons driving the administration to move ahead on the diplomatic track.

Mr. CHA: It was a very proximate problem that had to be dealt with pragmatically. And at the end of all that, if we come out with steps to take us further in terms of denuclearizing North Korea than anybody else has gotten, then I guess it will be seen as a legacy thing.

KELEMEN: That would be a rare foreign policy success for a secretary whose term has been overshadowed by America's troubles in Iraq.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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