WASHINGTON Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her North Korean counterpart on Wednesday for the first time and prodded the government in Pyongyang to move quickly to dismantle its nuclear arms program.
The meeting in Singapore between Rice, President Bush's top diplomat, and Pak Ui Chun, the foreign minister of the country Bush labeled as part of the "axis of evil" in 2002, occurred with surprisingly little fanfare, given the years of buildup. Bush administration officials said Rice and Pak spoke for a few minutes after an 80-minute official conference among the United States, North Korea, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea in Singapore outside a regional meeting.
In their brief one-on-one exchange, Rice told Pak that North Korea should accept terms to verify the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program, Bush administration officials said.
"We didn't get into specific timetables, but the spirit was good because people believe we have made progress," Rice said after the talks, The Associated Press reported. "There is also a sense of urgency about moving forward and a sense that we can't afford to have another hiatus."
She characterized the meeting as "very good," adding that "it wasn't a standoff with people just stating their positions," The AP reported. The meeting is the latest step in the Bush administration's turnaround on North Korea, after several years of isolation that ended in October 2006 when the North Koreans exploded a nuclear device. Rice and Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, subsequently convinced Bush that North Korea's nuclear test had changed the rules of the game enough that the president should complete a nuclear agreement with North Korea and the four other countries at the conference.
As part of the agreement, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for food and fuel aid. Bush also agreed to remove North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The spokesman for the North Korean delegation, Ri Tong Il, told reporters in Singapore that his country hoped that the meeting on Wednesday would build momentum toward the formal end of the Korean War. After the talks, Ri said that Pak had told his fellow foreign ministers that North Korea was willing "to implement its own obligations," including verification, "closely following the implementation by other parties on the principle of action-for-action."