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North Korean official to attend unofficial nuclear talks in US

Seen as sign that regime to follow late leader’s plans

SEOUL - In another sign of warming relations between two wartime foes, a senior North Korean nuclear negotiator will attend a security conference in the United States, a US official confirmed yesterday.

Word of Ri Yong Ho’s visit to the forum held by Syracuse University follows a breakthrough agreement that will provide much-needed US food aid to North Korea in exchange for a rollback of its nuclear programs.

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The agreement announced Wednesday sets in motion a plan laid out by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il before his death in December: to improve relations with the United States and to get back to six-nation disarmament-for-aid negotiations.

The commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, said yesterday that he is hopeful but not optimistic about the latest efforts to get North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program. “In the past, we have not seen much change,’’ Willard told a congressional hearing in Washington.

Still, there was cautious hope that North Korea’s relations with the United States and its allies have turned a corner after years of tensions. The agreement calls on Pyongang to suspend enrichment of uranium and place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

In a possible sign of things to come, Ri, North Korea’s vice foreign minister and envoy to nuclear disarmament negotiations, has been cleared to travel to the United States to attend the Syracuse University forum, the Associated Press was told in Seoul.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the envoy was coming at the Maxwell School’s invitation for three days next week to attend unofficial discussions the school is sponsoring, starting Wednesday.

A return to negotiations before the end of the semiofficial 100-day mourning period suggests stability and continuity during the transition of leadership in North Korea.

In Pyongyang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told the state-run Korean Central News Agency that the steps are confidence-building measures designed to improve relations between North Korea and the United States.

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