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The first official U.S. delegation to go to North Korea was heading for the capital, Pyongyang, on Saturday in a major step toward normalizing diplomatic relations.

The five Americans officials, led by State Department Korean specialist Lynn Turk, are to hold technical talks on how Washington and Pyongyang can open liaison offices in each other's capitals.The United States has never had relations with North Korea since its founding as a communist state in 1948. Opening liaison offices would be a major step toward mutual recognition.

U.S. officials say relations won't be normalized unless North Korea lets inspectors in to dispel suspicions that it has been secretly building nuclear weapons.

But South Korean officials believe the liaison offices will be opened by the end of the year in any event because they would open a channel of communication that may help speed resolution of the nuclear problem.

President Nixon ended decades of U.S. isolation of China by opening liaison offices in Beijing and Washington. President Carter subsequently normalized relations.

The U.S. State Department sees no symbolic significance in the fact that it is going to Pyongyang to open the talks, but spokesman Mike McCurry conceded last week that the North Koreans might.

The talks in Pyongyang, expected to last Sunday through Tuesday, are to focus on technicalities such as mail delivery, office space and telephone service. A simultaneous round of technical talks on nuclear issues will begin in Berlin.

North Korean delegation leader Kim Jong-u said in Berlin on Thursday that the technical experts will discuss how the West will help North Korea to build light-water nuclear reactors to replace its graphite-moderated reactors.