The US and North Korea near diplomatic thaw

The North says the US already agreed to take it off the list of terrorism-sponsoring states.

The deal struck by the top US and North Korean negotiators in Geneva for North Korea to live up to its promise to give up its nuclear weapons program apparently comes with crucial US concessions.

The US agreed in the talks to take North Korea off the State Department's list of "terrorist" countries, according to a spokesman for the North Korean foreign ministry, and also to provide political and economic "compensation" in the form of removal of sanctions.

The State Department refrained from immediate comment on the North Korean report, carried by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency. Analysts are confident, though, that the weekend talks between the US chief negotiator, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye Kwan, revolved around those issues.

"North Korea has been saying they are ready to dismantle their nuclear facilities if the US removes North Korea from the list of terrorist countries and the ban imposed under the trading-with-the-enemy act," says Kim Sung Han, professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. "North Korea says it suffers because of the US trade embargo, and if the US lifts the sanctions, North Korea will get out of its suffering."

It would take an act of Congress to de-list North Korea from the US terrorist list, but President Bush could act to erase the "terrorist" label by reporting to Congress that North Korea had not been involved in terrorist activities for the past six months.

That decision, while anticipated, is certain to provoke controversy since North Korea has never acknowledged the act that got it on the list in the first place – the bombing of a Korean Air 707 plane in November 1987.

The North Korean spokesman did not go into details, saying simply that the talks between Mr. Hill and Mr. Kim provided "a foundation for making progress in the next round of six-party talks."

It is in that forum, in Beijing, that North Korea is committed to providing chapter and verse on its entire nuclear program as called for in the agreement reached in February for giving it up. North Korea has lived up to the first phase of the agreement by shutting down the 5-megawatt reactor at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, in return for which South Korea shipped 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, and stands to get another 950,000 tons once it's abandoned the whole program.

Analysts here and in Seoul cite the quid pro quo inherent in an understanding that Hill says calls for North Korea to "provide a full declaration of all their nuclear programs" and "disable" them by the end of this year.

"You can see the North Korean strategy," says Moon Jung In, professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. The reward for North Korean cooperation, besides an outpouring of aid, he says, is diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Washington.

"North Korea is interested in normalizing relations," says Mr. Moon, who functions as an ambassador at large for the South Korean government. "The US has nothing to lose."

Kim Sung Han points out, however, the subtlety in Hill's announcement. Hill and Kim "are just concerned with nuclear facilities," he says, while omitting specific mention of North Korea's nuclear weapons or its program for developing nuclear warheads from highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium.

The deal at Geneva sets the stage for talks during the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference this week in Sydney. President Bush is to confer with China's President Hu Jin Tao Thursday and then talks with Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Friday.

The Roh-Bush meeting assumes special importance in view of the summit scheduled for October between Mr. Roh and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il. Mr. Bush is expected to ask Roh what issues he will stress when he meets Kim Jong Il for the second North-South summit – the first since Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, flew there in June 2000.

The North Koreans "are experts at the end game," says Kent Calder, director of the Reischauer program on Asia at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, talking about what North Korea hopes to gain.

"The devil is in the details," says Mr. Calder, asking the familiar question, "How can you verify and prove it" when it comes to the North's really giving up its nukes.

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