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US Sending Official to Pyongyang for Nuclear Talks

A senior U.S. diplomat visits Pyongyang later this week to try to advance the stalled accord under which North Korea is to end its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid and other benefits. North Korea was to have accounted for all its nuclear holdings by the end of last year, but has yet to make that declaration. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

North Korea's failure to meet the December 31 deadline for disclosing its nuclear program has, among other things, triggered criticism by U.S. conservatives of the Bush administration's handling of the nuclear issue.

However, officials here say Pyongyang is complying with key terms of the deal including the permanent disablement of its main nuclear reactor. And they are not characterizing this week's mission to the region by the director of the State Department's office of Korean Affairs as any kind of emergency.

Officials say U.S. diplomat Sung Kim, a Korean-American, will visit Seoul, Beijing and Pyongyang this week for a round of consultations on the six-party process.

North Korea agreed nearly a year ago to give up its nuclear program in return for fuel oil shipments and diplomatic benefits from the other participants in the talks - the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and host China.

It has shut down, and is well along in the process of permanently disabling, the reactor complex at Yongbyon from which it derived the plutonium for its small arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Its declaration of nuclear assets would open the way for the next phase of the agreement, providing for the dismantling of its nuclear program and the normalization of relations with Japan and the United States, which would remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

At a joint news conference Monday with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the disablement of Yongbyon has gone "relatively well" but that North Korea needs to make an accurate and complete declaration so that there can be confidence going into the next phase.

"I am hopeful that the North is now ready to have serious discussions about that, and we will see," she said. "But the completion of the declaration and the completion of the disablement phase, of course, is necessary in order for further progress to be made on all of the obligations. And the United States stands ready to fully discharge its obligations in the second phase, should North Korea discharge its obligations."

U.S. diplomat Kim, who has made several trips to the region in recent months, is due to arrive in Pyongyang Thursday and to return to Washington on Sunday.

In its declaration, North Korea is supposed to account for the uranium enrichment project U.S. officials believe it conducted in addition to its plutonium-based weapons program, and to disclose what nuclear help it may have gotten from abroad, or given to other countries.

Administration officials have downplayed the delay in getting the declaration, noting that other parts of the complex deal have been completed behind schedule.

However conservative critics of the accord say it raises basic questions about whether Pyongyang intends to live up to its obligations.

Last week, Rice took the unusual step of disavowing the critical comments of the administration's part-time envoy for North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz.

Lefkowitz said the delay suggests Pyonyang is not serious about disarming in a timely manner, and that it may maintain its current nuclear status for the rest of the President Bush's term.