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US Envoy Says North Korea Disarmament Process 'Back on Track'

The chief U.S. envoy to the six-party negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program says the process is "back on track" now that a long-running banking dispute has been resolved. But Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill says the effort faces key challenges in the next few weeks, including whether Pyongyang will admit having a uranium-based weapons project. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The financial dispute over $25 million in North Korean funds frozen at a Chinese bank in Macao stalled the nuclear talks for more than a year, and was settled only after a visit to Pyongyang by Assistant Secretary Hill last week.

Hill, just back from 10 days of diplomatic shuttling in Asia, told reporters here the next few weeks will be critical, and potentially problem-ridden, as participants in the six-party process look to an unprecedented ministerial-level meeting as early as the end of July.

The North Korean money had been frozen at Macao's Banco Delta Asia since late 2005, when the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted the bank as a conduit for illicit financial activity by Pyongyang.

The Bush administration moved to unblock the funds early this year but bureaucratic snags delayed payment. North Korea finally announced Monday it has received the funds and would start implementing the disarmament accord reached February 13, drawing an expression of relief from ambassador Hill.

"We have come through a period of lengthy inactivity which frankly, the longer it went on, the more I think it imperiled the entire process," said Christopher Hill. "So I think the process is back on track with the understanding that, you know, this is just the first step and we have a long way to go."

Hill said North Korea has invited international inspectors to visit its reactor complex at Yongbyon, where plutonium for North Korea's nuclear weapons has been produced, as a prelude to the planned shutdown of the facility in a matter of days.

He said this would be followed by a sequence of other events, including shipments of fuel oil to North Korea, an envoy-level meeting of the six parties in Beijing the week of July 10, and a declaration by North Korea of all its nuclear programs, equipment and fissile materials.

Hill made clear he expects such a declaration to include an accounting of the enriched-uranium weapons project the United States believes North Korea has been running, and which in 2002 led to the breakdown of a nuclear freeze accord with the Clinton administration.

He said the full implementation of the February 13 accord depends on such a disclosure, and that the United States will not accept having the uranium issue, in his words, "pushed under the rug:"

"We're not reaching any deal unless this is resolved," he said. "We've got to get clarity on this. Unlike many things in life where you can take care of them in one conversation, I don't think this is one of them. I think you have to kind of keep coming back, and keep explaining why this is important. And I think eventually we will get some clarity, because we can't walk away from this."

The assistant secretary said North Korean officials told him in Pyongyang that the uranium program was an issue that needs to be resolved to the parties' mutual satisfaction, a departure from previous denials of its existence.

Hill said if all goes according to plan, the first ministerial meeting of the six-party talks would occur in late July or early August, probably in Manila where ASEAN - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - is hosting a dialogue with foreign ministers of major world powers.

That would include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's first meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun.

In addition to the United States and North Korea, the six-party talks also involve South Korea, Japan, Russia and host China.

Under the February accord, North Korea would get security assurances and energy aid in return for the irreversible scrapping of its nuclear program. Pyongyang conducted an underground weapons test last October.