SYDNEY, Australia -- North Korea will open its Yongbyon nuclear facility to U.S., Russian and Chinese nuclear experts next week as diplomatic efforts to shutter North Korea's nuclear program enter a new phase, U.S. diplomats announced yesterday.
The announcement by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator on North Korea, capped a day of diplomacy that began with an awkward exchange between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun over north-south relations on the Korean Peninsula.
Hill said the North Koreans, who shut down Yongbyon this year, suggested the site visits as part of the next stage of disabling the reactors. The first visit will take place Sept. 11-15 and will include nuclear experts from the three nuclear members of the six-party talks.
"Our plan is to get this done by Dec. 31. To do that, we need to have some nuclear experts get some eyes on, and we thought the sooner the better," Hill said.
North Korea's nuclear advances, including its test in 2006 of a nuclear device, have been the sticking point of U.S.-North Korea relations. Roh pressed Bush to clarify his position when Bush linked the nuclear issue with prospects of an armistice officially ending the Korean War.
Although hostilities ceased in 1953, a peace treaty has never been signed, and North Korea cites the fear of renewed conflict as a reason it has pursued nuclear weapons.
"It's up to [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Il as to whether or not we're able to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War," Bush said. "He's got to get rid of his weapons in a verifiable fashion. And we're making progress toward that goal. It's up to him."
But Roh persisted: "If you could be a little bit clearer in your message ... "
"I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President," Bush replied in a tone some perceived as testy. "We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end - will happen when Kim Jong Il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons."
Afterward, aides suggested that there might have been a problem with translation and Roh might not have understood what Bush said the first time. Others, however, speculated that Roh might have been pushing for a more unequivocal statement from Bush.
White House officials insisted that there was no sign of tension during the two leaders' private meeting.
"The president made a clear statement of his support for ending the Korean War once and for all. And both leaders agreed on that," spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "And there was no tension in the meeting. There was no tension after the meeting amongst staff or amongst the leaders."
In other developments, Bush invited the heads of state of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to a summit in Texas in coming months. The summit would mark the organization's 40th anniversary and would attempt to compensate for Bush's cancellation of ceremonies originally scheduled in Singapore.
Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin also agreed that a U.S. military delegation will visit Russia's Gabala radar system in Azerbaijan in September. Putin has offered the United States access to Gabala in return for giving up a plan to install missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe. Bush has said he is willing to incorporate Gabala into his plans but is not willing to halt the missile-defense system.
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.