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US Sees North Korea Nuclear Deal as Potential Peace Catalyst

The chief U.S. delegate to North Korean nuclear negotiations says a disarmament accord could lead to regional peace and an eventual end to the division of Korea. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill briefed reporters in Washington Tuesday on the status of the six-party talks, now in recess.

Mr. Hill says he is under no illusions about the difficulty of the road ahead as participants in the six-party talks move from the statement of principles they agreed on last month to the details of a disarmament accord.

But he says a lot of progress was made in the 20-day round that ended September 19 in Beijing. He says if an agreement is eventually struck and implemented, it could open the way to resolving issues that have been outstanding for half a century, including a permanent Korean War peace accord and reunification of the peninsula.

Mr. Hill briefed reporters at Washington's Foreign Press Center on the Chinese-sponsored negotiating process which is due to resume sometime in November.

He said the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, if left unresolved, will continue to be a source of problems and instability in the region.

But he said if it is settled, it could open the way to addressing broader issues, including the division of Korea, which he called one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.

"Anybody who has been to Korea knows the pain that everyone feels at having a line drawn right across that peninsula," said Mr. Hill. "So I hope that we can deal with the fact that Korea, for example has only an armistice, a sort of elaborate cease-fire. It doesn't yet have a full peace mechanism. So we mention that in the statement of principles to try to push ahead on these issues. So it is very important that we succeed, and I would argue that we have to succeed."

Mr. Hill said that since the talks recessed two weeks ago, the participants have been conducting internal assessments of the last round and communicating by telephone.

He said he expects to develop a travel schedule in the next week or two, and he did not rule out a visit to Pyongyang though insisting there are no plans for such a trip at present.

In the statement of principles, North Korea said it is prepared to give up nuclear weapons and nuclear programs, while the United States declared it had no nuclear arms on the Korean peninsula and had no intention of invading or attacking the north.

The other participants agreed to provide North Korea with aid, including a South Korean commitment to provide large-scale electric power.

The parties agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the issue of providing North Korea with a light-water nuclear power reactor, though in his session with reporters, Mr. Hill said a nuclear plant should not be at the top of North Korea's priorities.

"The DPRK health care system has a lot of difficulties," he added. "Their road network is very problematic, their airports. The airport in Pyongyang has difficulties. They have a lot of problems. So I don't see how a light-water reactor helps them with all these problems. I don't mean to be patronizing. I don't need to be telling them what they need because they are certainly free to say what they need. But in my opinion a light water reactor should not be on the top of their list."

Mr. Hill said he was confident the parties can resolve the issue of sequencing, how North Korean disarmament moves would be linked to the provision of aid, if what he termed the tough, but businesslike atmosphere in the talks continues.

However, he said if the United States and others are asked to front-load the concessions and aid, with North Korean disarmament steps only later, then in his words "we've got a problem."

Along with the United States, North Korea and host China, the six-party talks also include South Korea, Japan and Russia.