WASHINGTON - President Bush has sent a personal letter to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, urging him to disclose fully all his country's nuclear programs before the end of the year.
It was Bush's first direct communication with the reclusive dictator, whom he once dismissed as a "pygmy" and a man he "loathed." Bush had also described North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.
The delivery of the letter appeared to indicate that talks over North Korea's renunciation of its nuclear program were at a particularly sensitive point, with a year-end deadline approaching for North Korea to declare its nuclear status fully.
Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said Bush decided to send the letter "so that we can keep it all on track."
Traveling in Europe, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it would take "a monumental effort" to meet the year-end deadline with North Korea, but she indicated flexibility, saying, "I am not too concerned about whether it is Dec. 31 or not," according to Reuters.
Similar letters were sent to the other countries taking part in the six-nation talks on ending the North's nuclear program, but the Bush letter to Kim included personalized elements, a US official said, without elaborating.
The sensitive diplomatic work on North Korea was among the topics when Bush spoke by phone yesterday with President Hu Jintao of China, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported. China is part of the talks.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top US envoy to the six-nation talks, delivered the letter through the North Korean foreign minister, Pak Ui Chun, during a three-day trip to Pyongyang that ended Wednesday, the Korean Central News Agency said. It did not elaborate.
Hill said later that he had made clear to North Korean officials that the declaration they are due to submit to the other countries by year's end "be complete and correct. And we emphasized that he wanted to be sure there are no surprises."
Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said yesterday that "President Bush wrote letters to all the leaders involved in the six-party talks last Saturday, Dec. 1."
"In these letters, the president reiterated our commitment to the six-party talks and stressed the need for North Korea to come forward with a full and complete declaration of their nuclear programs, as called for in the September 2005 six-party agreement."
Although Kim had exchanged letters with President Clinton, this was the first time he had received one from Bush.
"We know that Mr. Hill delivered a letter," said a senior official at the South Korean Foreign Ministry, who spoke anonymously under departmental ground rules. "It is inappropriate for us to comment on a letter the US president sent to the North Korean leader."
But he added: "Common sense tells us this is a good sign. We hope this will add momentum to the six-party talks."
After dismissing Kim for years as an unreliable dialogue partner, the Bush administration has recently stepped up diplomacy to end the North's nuclear programs, an approach marked by Hill's recent visit to Pyongyang.
Bush's gesture arrives as Washington is trying to persuade North Korea to disable its main nuclear complex and declare all its nuclear activities by the end of the year in return for economic and diplomatic rewards from the United States.
But at the end of his visit, Hill reversed his earlier optimism and indicated that negotiations on having North Korea reveal its nuclear programs were stalling.
In October, North Korea agreed to disable all of its nuclear facilities by the end of this year.