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US Envoy Upbeat on Potential Steps Toward North Korea Nuclear Deal


The chief U.S. delegate to international talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs says steps toward that goal may come soon. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Seoul, where Christopher Hill is beginning regional consultations before next week's planned nuclear talks.

Stepping off a plane here at South Korea's Incheon Airport Saturday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was upbeat about prospects for next week's talks with North Korea.

"We have reason to believe - we have done lots of consultations for this round, and we have reason to believe we can make some progress," he said.

On Thursday, China will host a new round of six-nation talks aimed at getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for financial and diplomatic benefits. Japan, Russia, and South Korea are also involved in the negotiations.

North Korea pledged in September 2005 to begin the dismantlement process. However, it boycotted the subsequent talks for more than a year in response to U.S. Treasury Department sanctions targeting Pyongyang's business interests. Washington has said the sanctions are a law enforcement response to North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting, and should be treated separately from the nuclear issue.

North Korea rejoined the six-nation talks last December, two months after conducting its first nuclear weapons test. U.S. officials say the round was unproductive because the North's delegates refused to discuss anything but the financial sanctions.

However, a three-day meeting between Hill and his North Korean counterpart, along with separate talks between U.S. Treasury and North Korean officials, may have set the stage for progress.

Hill says that progress is defined as concrete steps by North Korea to turn its two-year-old pledges into reality.

"I'm looking for some implementation of the September 05 agreement, meaning something changes on the ground," he said.

Some international experts echo Hill's upbeat prognosis for the talks.

Don Oberdorfer, the chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Washington's Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, says what he has been hearing indicates a breakthrough is possible.

"As I understand it, we'll find out, when the announcements are made later this week, that the North Koreans are very likely to shut down Yongbyon - their nuclear reactor - [and] bring back the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to North Korea," he said.

North Korea restarted the Yongbyon reactor and kicked out IAEA inspectors four years ago after the United States said it was secretly trying to build nuclear weapons in violation of several past agreements to be nuclear free.

Oberdorfer says for the United States is likely to announce at least a partial lifting of the financial sanctions.

Assistant Secretary Hill is expected to leave Seoul Monday, to consult with Japanese officials in Tokyo before proceeding to Beijing for the talks.