LIMA (Reuters) - The five countries working to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program plan to meet in early December with Pyongyang to formalize the process it will follow to verify it has abandoned atomic weapons, U.S. officials said on Saturday.
U.S. President George W. Bush discussed the issue on Saturday in meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of a summit of Asia Pacific leaders in Peru.
Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao, the host of the six-party process, talked about North Korea on Friday, and the U.S. president has a meeting later on Saturday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, another participant.
“We don’t have a date to announce yet but there is an agreement to have a meeting and so we’re just working to make sure everyone’s schedules work out before the Chinese would announce anything as to the timing,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
North Korea agreed in 2005 to abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives. Pyongyang, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, began disabling its nuclear capability last year.
The agreement almost collapsed a few months ago because the United States was slow to remove North Korea from a terrorism blacklist, saying it first wanted to agree on a procedure to verify Pyongyang’s statements about its nuclear program.
Washington took North Korea off the blacklist in October after the two agreed on a procedure and Pyongyang resumed dismantling its Yongbyon plant, which makes weapons-grade plutonium. The verification steps still must be formally agreed on by the six-party process.
In his meeting with Lee and Aso, Bush “talked about the verification document that will codify what (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-il said he would do,” Perino said. “He thinks that it is important and that’s what will be discussed at the meeting at the beginning of December.”
Aso, in a separate meeting with Bush, raised concerns about the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago to help train spies in language and culture. The Japanese leader has promised to maintain a ban on economic aid to North Korea until there is progress on the issue.
“For Japan, not only is the nuclear issue important, but also the issue of Japanese abductees,” a Japanese government official quote Aso as saying.
Bush told the Japanese leader “he knew how very sensitive it is and ... that we want to hold the North Koreans to account on that issue,” Perino said.
Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council, said there was unanimity among the leaders over formalizing the verification deal.
“Everybody understands why this is important, why we need to get the North to commit in writing and why this particular moment is a very important moment to make sure that again the six-party process continues,” Wilder said.
He said the leaders were conscious of the need to formalize the deal before the change of administration in Washington, with Bush handing over power to President-elect Barack Obama.
“The one idea that all of these countries are definitely committed to is that the six-party process is the right format, the right venue for this,” Wilder said. “So I think they want to ... put this in the most attractive place possible so that the next administration will see its value.”
Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka; editing by Mohammad Zargham