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Last updated: September 7, 2007 5:32 pm
North Korea has invited nuclear experts from the US, China and Russia to survey its nuclear facilities next week, increasing momentum behind efforts to dismantle an atomic weapons programme that has bedevilled north-east Asia for 15 years.
The US described the breakthrough as “another significant step” towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsular.
The four-day visit, starting on Tuesday, is aimed at studying North Korean nuclear facilities to determine what steps are needed to put them out of use.
Christopher Hill, US assistant secretary of state, said the inspections were proposed by Pyongyang in talks with the US in Geneva last weekend, highlighting the accelerating pace of diplomacy surrounding the issue.
North Korea pledged at the Geneva meeting to complete dismantlement of all nuclear facilities by the end of this year, although many analysts are sceptical about whether that deadline will be met.
Pyongyang agreed in February to scrap its nuclear programme in return for a series of economic and diplomatic incentives from the US, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, after three years of talks. Mr Hill said North Korea’s invitation of nuclear experts was a “sign of the seriousness of purpose” among all six countries to implement the deal.
President George W. Bushon Friday reiterated his willingness to sign a peace treaty with North Korea if it goes through with denuclearisation. But Mr Bush was pressured into making the commitment in a testy exchange with Roh Moo-hyun, president of South Korea, on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Sydney.
In remarks to reporters after a closed-door meeting, Mr Roh twice pressed Mr Bush to be “clearer” about his intention to normalise relations with Pyongyang, which remains technically at war with the US after a 54-year ceasefire.
Mr Bush, sitting beside Mr Roh in front of a bank of photographers and television cameras, visibly bristled at his counterpart’s diplomatic ambush tactics. “I can't make it any more clear, Mr President,” he told Mr Roh. “We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programmes and his weapons.”
The White House attributed the tense encounter to a linguistic misunderstanding, insisting the closed-door meeting had been friendly and constructive. “There was clearly something lost in translation,” said a spokesman.
But the incident added to the impression of strained relations between Seoul and Washington since the left-leaning Mr Roh, known for his maverick nature and outspoken comments, was elected five years ago.
Friday’s meeting was almost certainly the last between the two leaders before Mr Roh leaves office in January. The South Korean president is racing to secure a meaningful legacy before stepping down, with inter-Korean reconciliation his top priority.
Mr Roh is scheduled to visit Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il next month – only the second summit between the two Koreas since the peninsula was divided. South Korea’s policy of engagement with the North has often put it at odds with the Bush administration’s more hardline approach – a division that Pyongyang is well-practiced at exploiting.
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