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The United States has praised Japan for taking up with Pyongyang the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program during diplomatic normalization talks in Malaysia on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I think Japan did make clear in Kuala Lumpur that the issue remains high on their agenda and that North Korea’s compliance with international commitments is a prerequisite to normalization of diplomatic relations,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher remarked Wednesday at a regular news briefing.

“The North Koreans should not expect progress on their agenda or on normalization of relationships without promptly and verifiably dismantling these nuclear programs,” he said.

At the normalization talks in Kuala Lumpur, Japan and North Korea agreed to set up a panel of senior working-level officials later this month to discuss security issues, including the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Boucher said the U.S. will stay in close contact with Japan in a concerted effort to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

“The United States and Japan share very serious concerns over that program,” he said.

Pentagon on the way

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) A senior U.S. Defense Department official will visit Japan and South Korea next week to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, U.S. government sources said Wednesday.

U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith is expected to meet with Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun.

Feith will depart Washington as early as Sunday, becoming the first senior Pentagon official to visit Japan and South Korea after North Korea’s admission in October that it has a program for enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

He is also expected to exchange views with Japanese and South Korean officials on the military situation on the Korean Peninsula as well as military talks to be resumed between the United States and China.

Feith will represent the U.S. in the Defense Consultative Talks with Beijing, expected to be held as early as December. Bilateral military talks have been suspended since April 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace over the South China Sea and then made an emergency landing on a Chinese island, where the U.S. crew was briefly held and their aircraft was gone over.

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