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Originally published Friday, December 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Bush sends North Korea a "reminder"

A U.S. official said President Bush's communiqué, which seeks nuclear disclosure, refers to a need to resolve three main sticking points.

WASHINGTON — In his first known direct communication with the leader of North Korea, whom his administration has called a "tyrant," President Bush sent Kim Jong Il a hand-signed letter reminding him of his commitment to disclose the details of his country's nuclear-weapons program by the end of the year, the White House said Thursday.

The letter from Bush, who linked North Korea, Iran and Iraq in 2002 in what he called the "axis of evil," was addressed "Dear Mr. Chairman."

The letter, delivered to North Korea's foreign minister in Pyongyang on Saturday by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, apparently raises the possibility of normalized relations in a turnabout for a president who has labeled the communist regime part of an "axis of evil."

"I want to emphasize that the declaration must be complete and accurate if we are to continue our progress," Bush wrote, according to an excerpt of the letter obtained by The Associated Press.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush meant the letter as a "reminder" to North Korea that it has pledged to provide — by the end of the month — a complete and accurate disclosure of its nuclear programs.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush indicated to Kim that if North Korea does what it has agreed to do, and the Korean peninsula is denuclearized, then that ultimately will lead to normalization.

The United States is looking for a complete declaration of North Korea's nuclear facilities, materials and programs and also insists that it address any role that the North Koreans have played in spreading nuclear technology or know-how to others.

Bush sent similar letters to the leaders of Russia, China, Japan and South Korea — the other nations besides the U.S. and North Korea negotiating to stop the development of nuclear weapons there — to reiterate his desire to resolve the nuclear standoff. He also spoke about the issue on the phone Thursday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Under observation by U.S. experts, North Korea started disabling its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down in July, and two other facilities last month under terms of an agreement reached in February after years of impasse over the issue.

Hill said efforts to disarm the reactor by year's end are going as scheduled, but differences remain over the nuclear programs that the regime would declare, another part of the February agreement.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press that the letter to North Korea refers to a need to resolve three main sticking points: the exact amount of weapons-grade nuclear material the North produced, the number of warheads it built, and whether and how North Korea may have passed nuclear material or knowledge to others.

The question of proliferation has taken on greater significance, and become a political hurdle for the Bush administration, since Israel's airstrike on a suspected Syrian nuclear site Sept. 6. Intelligence reports suggested Syria was cooperating in some fashion with North Korea in building the site.

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Perino said Bush decided to send the letter "so that we can keep it all on track."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling to Brussels, Belgium, for a NATO meeting, said, "It's going to take a monumental effort to get all of this done by the end of the year and I am not too concerned about whether it is Dec. 31 or not."

Under the deal, North Korea was promised 1 million tons of fuel oil or the equivalent, plus political concessions such as its removal from a U.S. list of terrorism-supporting nations, in return for disabling its nuclear program and making other moves.

Also Thursday, South Korea said it will send North Korea 50,000 tons of corn to help ease its chronic food shortages, even though North Korean defectors claim that such aid rarely reaches those who need it the most.

Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and Reuters

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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