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U.S. and North Korea set for nuclear talks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. and North Korean negotiators start talks on Monday aimed at eventually normalising diplomatic ties as part of a agreement under which Pyongyang has pledged to scrap its nuclear arms programs for aid.

North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan (C) speaks to the media as he leaves his country's mission in New York March 4, 2007. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

The talks at the U.S. mission to the United Nations mark the highest-level meeting on American soil since communist North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il sent a top envoy to Washington in 2000 in an abortive effort to improve relations.

North Korean envoy Kim Kye-gwan will meet his American counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, to begin resolving problems between two countries that have been bitter foes since the 1950-53 Korean War.

“This is the beginning of the implementation of the agreement of a couple of weeks ago,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday.

But scepticism runs deep about any dramatic shift in ties between the United States and a country that President George W. Bush in 2002 labelled part of an “axis of evil.”

For North Korea, antipathy to the United States, which sent thousands of troops to support South Korea in the war, has been a core element of its identity in five decades of mistrust between the two nations.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Monday’s talks would begin with a meeting at 5:30 p.m. EST (2230 GMT) followed by a working dinner. He said Tuesday’s working group talks were expected to run all day.

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Bilateral issues to be discussed include the U.S. designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and American trade sanctions against the North under the Trading with the Enemy Act, the U.S. State Department said.

The United States will seek North Korea’s assurances that it is committed to following through on an agreement to shut down within 60 days its main nuclear facility and allow inspectors in return for 50,000 tons of fuel oil.

BREAKTHROUGH UNLIKELY

“There’s a long list of issues that have to be resolved and I don’t think anyone is expecting this set of talks will lead to a breakthrough,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea expert now at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

Klingner said he expected the two-day session in New York to lay he groundwork for future meetings.

“They certainly will have to tell Hill what are they doing, what is the timetable, and the results of that will indicate how far and how fast this process is going to move,” said Don Oberdorfer, a Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Oberdorfer was one of several U.S. nuclear and Korea experts and former officials, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who were attending an informal meeting with Kim Kye-gwan ahead of formal talks on Monday evening.

“There’s nothing to wait for here,” Kim told reporters as he entered the Korea Society in New York for the five-hour informal meeting.

The New York meeting is part of the first stage in implementing the February 13 deal reached in Beijing by the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China after three years of talks that were punctuated by a North Korean nuclear test last October.

Further steps to fully “disable” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will gain the impoverished state another 950,000 tons of oil or other forms of aid of equivalent value.

Before the next round of six-party nuclear talks on March 19, North Korea is set to hold discussions with Japan in Hanoi, as well as separate meetings on energy aid, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and regional security.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington

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