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US Says North Korea Nuclear Talks 'On Track'

The top American negotiator in two days of talks with North Korea says both sides believe efforts to normalize relations are on the right track. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from New York.

After a total of eight hours of historic talks aimed at establishing normal relations with North Korea, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was upbeat.

"For now we feel we're on the right track," he said.

He described the discussions with North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan as "marked by a sense of optimism on both sides". At the same time, he cautioned that it is far too early to 'crack out the champagne or do victory laps'.

Hill and Kim are working on a deal that would require Pyongyang to dismantle its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor within 60 days. In return, North Korea would receive 50,000 tons of fuel oil, as set out in an agreement reached during six-party talks in Beijing last month.

If all goes well, the process could eventually lead to normalization of relations between two countries that have not been on friendly terms since North Korea was created after World War II.

But Hill told reporters that while phase one went well, phase two, involving disabling Pyongyang's nuclear facilities, will be more difficult. He referred to North Korea by its formal initials, DPRK.

"We are on a step-by-step basis with the DPRK," he said. "I believe that they have clearly set out at this point that they are prepared to live up to all their obligations in the 60-day period. So I think we also have a will to move to the next stage, but this process we're on, not unlike a video game, gets more and, more difficult as you move to more and more levels."

Hill attributed North Korea's willingness to talk about destroying its nuclear facilities to international outrage at its missile test and nuclear explosion last year. He said the reaction of regional power China, one of North Korea's closest allies, had been important in persuading North Korean leaders that last year's tests had been a blunder.

"After North Korea made what I think was a real mistake in firing off missiles in July and then testing a nuclear device, they saw that the international reaction was pretty strong and pretty united and I'm sure they noticed that China was one of the countries that voted unanimously in the Security Council for the resolutions both in July and October," Hill said.

Hill rejected a reporter's suggestion that the six-party talks on North Korea might serve as a model for efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. He said there is no 'one size fits all' solution. But he suggested there might be lessons for Iran in Pyongyang's bitter experience with its weapons program.

"Nuclear weapons have not been a very good experience for North Korea," he said. "I think North Korea has been left more isolated than ever before, more impoverished than ever before. If you look back at the history of North Korea's economy, and you can see that these nuclear weapons have done nothing for North Korea. Absolutely nothing, and I do hope the people in Iran take note of that fact."

The two governments are set to resume bilateral talks next week in Beijing. Those will come before another session of six-party talks involving Japan, China, South Korea and Russia.

Earlier Tuesday, in a speech at New York's privately-funded Korea Society, Hill said Washington remains concerned that Pyongang is trying to enrich uranium. That followed a comment by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte during a visit to Seoul that the United States has no doubt that North Korea has had a uranium enrichment program in the past.

Pyongyang has never acknowledged it has enriched uranium. Its nuclear weapons test last October was fueled by plutonium, not uranium.