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European Envoys Say N. Korea Eager to Engage on Nuclear Issue


European Union officials have emerged from a diplomatic visit to North Korea with an upbeat assessment of Pyongyang's commitment to start dismantling its nuclear weapons. United Nations nuclear inspectors arrived in the North this week and may soon be given a first-hand look at the nuclear reactor they hope will be shut down within weeks. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

European Parliament delegate Hubert Pirker has been to North Korea before. But he told reporters in Seoul Wednesday the time he spent there this week went much better than in the past.

"The talks we had were open, friendly and in a relaxed atmosphere, and, I can say, totally different from the talks we had in the last visits," he said.

Pirker and several other European envoys arrived in Seoul Tuesday night after four days of meetings with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang. The meetings come less than a week after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill made his own visit to Pyongyang to push forward stalled diplomacy on the North's nuclear weapons programs.

Pyongyang promised to shut down its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon by mid-April but refused to meet that deadline because of a financial dispute that was only finally resolved this Monday.

United Nations nuclear inspectors arrived in Pyongyang a day later. Media reports from Pyongyang say the team plans to visit Yongbyon on Thursday.

Pirker says his delegation feels confident North Korea is serious about living up to its pledge.

"We really had (an) impression that they are willing to immediately shut [the Yongbyon reactor] down," he said. "They promised to do so, so we can be optimistic."

The planned Yongbyon shutdown is the first phase of a broader agreement struck in February between North Korea, China, Russia, the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Under the accord, North Korea is to receive emergency energy aid and diplomatic benefits.

In a notable departure from the past, Pirker says North Korea showed a genuine interest in having a dialogue about its human rights situation.

"This was the first time they accepted that we are urging the implementation of international standards of human rights," he said.

Researchers and advocates say North Korea is one of the world's worst abusers of human rights. But Pirker says officials in Pyongyang displayed none of what he calls the "aggressive" attitude about human rights that they displayed in previous discussions.

More six-nation talks about the North's weapons programs are expected to take place early next month, assuming the Yongbyon shutdown is completed. South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon departed Seoul Wednesday for meetings in Washington with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. U.S. officials say, if progress in the nuclear negotiations continue, Rice hopes to attend a six-nation ministerial meeting on the issue before the end of the year.