updated 3/5/2007 6:46:36 PM ET 2007-03-05T23:46:36

More than 50 years after the end of the Korean War, the United States and North Korea opened historic talks Monday on steps to establish diplomatic relations following Pyongyang's agreement to dismantle its nuclear program.

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North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill began their first meeting in the early evening at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

They are to meet again Tuesday amid rising expectations of improved U.S. relations with a country President Bush called part of an "axis of evil" five years ago, along with Iran and prewar Iraq.

This is the first U.S. visit by Kim, North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, since the international standoff over the North's nuclear ambitions flared in late 2002.

Under an agreement reached at six-nation talks in Beijing last month on the North's nuclear program, the United States and North Korea are supposed to open bilateral talks on establishing diplomatic ties. The North, which tested a nuclear weapon last October, agreed at the talks to shut down its main nuclear reactor by mid-April as a step toward abandoning its nuclear program in exchange for aid.

Setting the agenda
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cautioned that this week's initial meetings would focus on setting the agenda for the U.S.-North Korea working group led by Kim and Hill, the top American nuclear negotiator.

"I think that he (Hill) will talk to them about how the process might proceed regarding normalization," McCormack said, including taking North Korea off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and opening the way for a normal trading relationship with the U.S. for the first time.

Kim's first stop Monday was the Korea Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes greater understanding and cooperation between Americans and Koreans. He spent 4 1/2 hours with an array of academics and VIPs including former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.

"We had a very good and fruitful and friendly meeting," Albright told reporters.

A statement issued afterward said participants at the meeting, sponsored by the Korea Society and the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, discussed a range of U.S.-North Korean issues including normalization of relations "in a friendly and forthcoming atmosphere."

"The participants agreed that continuing dialogue of this nature can be helpful in laying the foundation for improved official relations to be established through forthcoming negotiations," the statement said.

Kim arrived in New York late Friday and met over the weekend with South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo.

Chun told reporters afterward that "without a doubt, the North is committed to taking initial steps" to implementing its recent agreement to start dismantling its nuclear weapons program, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Sunday.

‘A will to do its part’
North Korea "has a will to do its part" in implementing the nuclear deal, Chun was quoted as saying.

At the U.S.-North Korea talks, "it will be important to create political conditions," Chun said, but declined to comment further, according to Yonhap.

The first phase of North Korea's disarmament process under the Feb. 13 six-party deal calls on North Korea to shut down its main nuclear reactor and allow U.N. inspectors back into the country within 60 days.

In return, it would receive aid equal to 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil from the other countries participating in the nuclear talks — the United States, South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.

McCormack stressed that the process of normalization must proceed "step by step."

"It is going to have to be a process by which good faith actions are met in turn by good faith actions," he said. "We, of course, intend to abide by our commitments under the agreement. We'll see how the North Korean side lives up to its responsibilities."

The United States has had no diplomatic relations with North Korea since the country was created after World War II, when Korea was split into a communist-dominated North and a U.S.-backed capitalist South.

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