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    US Optimistic After North Korean Reactor Shutdown

    The United States says it is hopeful the six-party agreement to end North Korea's nuclear program is getting back on track, following confirmation that the communist country's main nuclear reactor has been shut down. The six parties meet at the envoy level in Beijing later this week. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

    North Korea agreed to shut down the Yongbyon reactor last February, but the process stalled for several months over a dispute with the United States about frozen bank funds. The dispute was eventually settled.

    Now, following verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Yongbyon has been taken off-line, officials in Washington are cautiously optimistic that the multi-stage disarmament deal is back on track.

    North Korea is receiving 50,000 tons of fuel oil from South Korea in the first phase of the deal, which required it to shut down the reactor and allow IAEA inspectors back to Yongbyon.

    Envoys of the six parties, which include Russia, Japan, China, as well as the United States and the two Koreas, are to convene Wednesday in Beijing to discuss a work plan for the next phase of the deal, under which North Korea is to permanently disable Yongbyon and declare all its nuclear programs and assets including weapons.

    State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says the way forward will be difficult but U.S. officials are encouraged by signs that North Korea's commitment to disarm in exchange for aid and diplomatic benefits may be sincere:

    "We are starting to see indications that North Korea may have taken that strategic decision. But there are more steps to take along that way," he said. "Certainly, an important one is going to be disablement of the reactor, which means that you cannot turn back with that particular facility."

    The Yongbyon reactor, located about 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang, turned out the plutonium for what is believed to be a North Korean arsenal of several nuclear weapons, one of which was detonated in an underground test last October.

    Though North Korea has denied it, the United States believes Pyongyang had a parallel enriched-uranium weapons project and expects that to be part of the promised declaration.

    McCormack said the chief U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, is due Tuesday in Beijing and will meet with his North Korean and Russian counterparts before the envoy's meeting Wednesday.

    The first phase of the accord is to be capped by a ministerial level session in Beijing, which would likely include a first-ever meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her North Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun.

    McCormack said the timing of the ministerial meeting is one of the issues to be discussed by the envoys in the Chinese capital this week and that it could come within the next month.

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