N. Korea talks open on optimistic note

BEIJING — Talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program opened on an optimistic note Thursday, with the United States and North Korea in general accord on most of the disablement measures, but there was still no sign of the exact conditions under which the United States would lift its designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The Bush administration's promise is one of the sweeter carrots on the negotiating table, but earlier this week a senior Republican on Capitol Hill introduced a bill to thwart the move, raising the bar on what Pyongyang would have to do to shake loose of the "terror" label.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, demanded that North Korea halt missile sales to Syria and Iran, end ties to Hezbollah and Hamas, return 15 abducted Japanese citizens, stop counterfeiting U.S. currency and take several other measures before the designation could end.

"Our policy towards this regime cannot be based on the hope that it will actually honor its commitments, but based instead on its actual performance," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy to the talks, shrugged off questions about the bill, which has yet to be discussed in committee, saying, "There are House bills posed every day on a variety of subjects."

Hill met his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, Wednesday night and again on Thursday. He said he expected to sign a declaration laying out the terms of disabling the North's program before talks wrap up on Sunday. Also on the table is a "road map" to reward North Korea with a series of economic and political incentives if it disables its nuclear facilities by the end of the year.

"With the joint efforts of all parties, the six-party talks are developing along the right track, and a new harvest season has appeared in front of us," China's senior envoy, Wu Dawei, said at an opening session.

Washington first put North Korea on a list of state sponsors of terror in 1988, when a North Korean agent confessed to placing a bomb aboard a Korean Airlines flight bound from the Middle East to Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 29, 1987, killing 115 people.

North Korea agents in the 1970s and 1980s abducted more than a dozen Japanese and forced them to work as language instructors to train future spies.

North Korea tested a nuclear device last October. But in February, it agreed to negotiate the scrapping of its nuclear program in exchange for heavy fuel oil and diplomatic and security incentives. The six parties to the agreement were the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.

Washington's exact terms for lifting North Korea's "terror" designation aren't known, but the U.S. decision apparently is linked to Pyongyang's willingness to disable its nuclear installations in an irreversible fashion.

To remove a "terror" designation, U.S. law requires that the White House determine that a designated country hasn't sponsored a terrorist attack for a period, then notify Congress of such a decision.

"It remains in Congress for 45 days, after which the secretary (of state) is empowered to move ahead," Hill said.

The designation bars the U.S. government from offering economic or military assistance, imposes financial restrictions, blocks U.S. support for access to the World Bank and limits commercial transactions.

"Getting off the terrorism list is a significant political objective for the North Koreans. They want to get off," said Scott Snyder, a Korean Peninsula expert at the Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He noted that Washington holds "the keys to their participating in a number of international arenas, especially in the economic area."