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US, Partners Prepare For Progress on N. Korean Nuclear Issue

South Korea is preparing to send massive amounts of fuel oil and rice to North Korea - but only if Pyongyang lives up to a promise to start dismantling its nuclear weapons programs. Washington's main diplomat in the negotiations to end the North's nuclear programs says a key step toward that end should take place next month. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

South Korean authorities are working with two of the country's largest oil companies to arrange a massive shipment of fuel oil to North Korea. The shipment is part of a deal struck in February in which Pyongyang promised to shut down its main nuclear production facility.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said Wednesday that Seoul expects progress in implementing that agreement - and that North-South cooperation depends on it.

He says South Korea will only provide rice aid to the North on the condition that six-nation diplomacy on the North's weapons programs moves forward.

Seoul says the donations of rice and fuel oil have always been contingent on Pyongyang shutting down the reactor.

North Korea promised to complete the reactor shutdown by mid-April, but then delayed until millions of dollars of its money frozen in a Macau bank were returned. That dispute was resolved early this week, opening the way for the disarmament process to continue.

United Nations nuclear inspectors are expected to discuss specifics of the shutdown during a visit to North Korea next week.

The chief U.S. envoy to the six-nation talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said in Tokyo Wednesday that he hopes Pyongyang will finish the shutdown within weeks.

Hill says a new round of talks with the North - which also involve Russia, Japan, China, and South Korea - could come as early as next month.

However, many South Korean scholars express skepticism about whether North Korea has truly made the strategic decision to quit the nuclear weapons club. Paik Seung-joo, of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, believes the recent banking dispute was just an excuse by Pyongyang for a delay.

He says Pyongyang most likely used the period of the banking dispute to formulate a plan for deceiving the outside world into thinking it is fulfilling the February agreement.

Paik says it will be extremely hard to get North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons in the long term.