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US Says Top-Level North Korea Talks to Take Place in October

The chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program says an unprecedented ministerial-level meeting of that grouping could be held in October. But Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill says there is much preparatory work to do in the disarmament talks in the next several weeks. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The meeting of foreign ministers would be the first in the Chinese-sponsored talks, and include a first-ever meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her North Korean counterpart Pak Ui Chun.

Hill says such a meeting is a reasonable expectation for October in Beijing, provided the parties can clear away remaining tasks in the first phase of the disarmament framework reached in September of 2005 and concluded last February.

The U.S. diplomat spoke to reporters in advance of his departure Thursday for Geneva, where he takes part Saturday and Sunday in a U.S.-North Korean working group that is part of the February accord.

The agreement under which North Korea is to scrap its nuclear weapons and related programs in exchange for energy aid and diplomatic incentives is to eventually lead to normalized relations between the United States and Pyongyang.

Hill said the Geneva meeting will deal with normalization issues, including a pathway by which North Korea can be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The Assistant Secretary of State has met frequently with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, in six-way and bilateral meetings since last year. He says the relationship between the former enemies is easing but cannot be fully normal until the disarmament process concludes:

"I like to think the relationship is improving because we're beginning to get some things done through the six-party process. It's not just because we're talking more. I I think it's because we are getting stuff done. And to the extent we continue to get things done, I think the relationship will continue to improve - with the understanding that we're not going to get there unless we get to the destination of the six-party process which is denuclearization," he said.

The U.S.-North Korea meeting in Geneva and a parallel North Korea-Japan working group session is to be followed by a six-way envoys meeting in early September.

The ground-breaking ministerial in October would follow, provided the talks produce an acceptable declaration by North Korea of all its nuclear holdings including weapons, and a plan to permanently disable the Yongbyon reactor complex that North Korea shut down in July.

Hill says the aim is to complete that phase of the agreement by the end of this year, and then tackle the final issues of the six-party accord in 2008. "We'll then look at where we are and then try to go to what I hope will be the end-game, which is the issue -- pursuant to the September '05 agreement - of having North Korea abandon its fissile material and explosive devices. And also I might add that what we also want to do by the end of '07 (and) the beginning of '08 is to begin a peace process on the Korean Peninsula as well as set up a Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism. If we want to get to those end-game elements we're going to have to make progress on this next stage," he said.

Hill made clear the overall package must include a resolution of the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970's and 80's, as well as that of the uranium enrichment program the United States believes North Korea has conducted but has not acknowledged.

North Korea, which tested a plutonium-based nuclear weapon last year, is to give up its nuclear program in exchange for one million tons of fuel oil or equivalent aid and the diplomatic benefits that would effectively end the communist government's international isolation.

The six-party talks, under way since 2003, include South Korea, Russia and Japan as well as North Korea, the United States and host China.