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Diplomats in Beijing to Check on Progress of N. Korean Nuclear Disarmament

Representatives of six nations taking part in the North Korean nuclear disarmament process are gathering in Beijing. The diplomats are checking on the progress of a preliminary agreement reached last month, in preparation for a resumption of the full six-party nuclear talks next week. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from the Chinese capital.

Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill arrived in Beijing Wednesday expressing cautious optimism on whether North Korea is on track to shut down its only nuclear plant. Pyongyang agreed to do that by mid-April, as a first step toward full nuclear disarmament, in exchange for energy aid and diplomatic concessions.

Pyongyang officials this week have hosted the head of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed Elbaradei, who met with North Korean officials in Pyongyang Wednesday. It was the first such visit to North Korea since the country expelled IAEA inspectors in late 2002, at the start of the nuclear crisis.

Speaking to reporters at the Beijing airport Wednesday, Christopher Hill indicated Elbaradei's visit itself was reason for optimism.

"I think receiving Mr. Elbaradei was obviously a good sign, but we have to hear what Mr. Elbaradei has to say," he said.

Hill is due to meet with Elbaradei on Thursday, when working group meetings get under way among the six-party participants, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

The working groups are to discuss economic and energy cooperation, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and northeast Asia security issues. On Monday, the chief delegates are scheduled to reconvene for a full session of negotiations.

North Korea's head negotiator, Kim Kye Kwan, did not meet with Mohamed Elbaradei during the U.N. nuclear agency chief's visit to Pyongyang. Diplomats, however, did not appear concerned that this might signal a breakdown in the process.

They said it was likely the North Korean official was busy preparing for the next week's six-nation talks.