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US Experts Predict Tough Road Ahead for North Korea Negotiators

Representatives from the six nations seeking a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue prepare to meet in Beijing Wednesday. While U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic about the meeting, at least one expert on North Korea is warning of the the possibility of more roadblocks. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

The six parties negotiating the North Korean nuclear issue, the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, signed a disarmament deal in February that called for speedy action by all sides. Pyongyang was to completely dismantle its nuclear programs and provide a full accounting of all its nuclear activities. In return, North Korea would receive up to one million tons of fuel oil as well as possible political benefits.

Progress on the deal was held up for several months by a just-resolved dispute over North Korean money that had been frozen in a Macau bank. The U.S. government had said the funds came from illicit North Korean activities.

At the State Department Tuesday, spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. envoy Christopher Hill will be looking for ways to resolve any other obstacles that would block full implementation of the February agreement.

"What I saw him [Hill] say is that he hopes to get the process back on track so that we can complete all of the February 13th agreement, both the first phase as well as the second phase, by the end of the year. We want to move this forward as quickly as possible," he said.

International inspectors confirm that North Korea has shut down its main plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. In the second phase of the agreement, Pyongyang is to disable Yongbyon and make a declaration of all of its nuclear programs.

Charles Pritchard, the president of the Korea Economic Institute and former U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, said he thinks Pyongyang will be able to make some sort of declaration. But he says he envisions problems when it comes to completely dismantling Yongbyon.

"For the North Koreans, before they make that move, they're going to say two things. One, when we do this, we are left with an environmental mess. Who is going to clean it up? Who is going to pay for it? Who is going to retrain our scientists that no longer have jobs," he said.

Pritchard also expects North Korea to repeat its demand for light water reactors to replace the energy lost by shutting down nuclear facilities like Yongbyon.

He is pessimistic there will be a speedy conclusion.

"When Chris Hill says, 'we are going to be talking about phase two, but there are challenges ahead.' Well, they're very serious challenges. And I, for one, don't believe that they'll be resolved by the end of the year, nor do I believe they'll be resolved by the end of the Bush administration," he said.

Pritchard says although North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up its plutonium weapons program, it still possesses enough fissile material to produce eight to 10 nuclear weapons.

He added that a major sticking point will be unresolved U.S. concerns about a separate North Korean program to enrich uranium, material that also can be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang confirmed its nuclear weapons capability by conducting an underground nuclear test in October.