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US Says North Korea Hands Over Nuclear Documents

The U.S. State Department says North Korea has turned over thousands of documents relating to its nuclear program to a U.S. envoy visiting Pyongyang. The action is seen as a step toward getting the full declaration of its nuclear program that North Korea was to have made at the end of last year. David Gollust reports from the State Department.

In a move described here as unprecedented, North Korea has turned over as many as 19,000 documents on its nuclear program to the State Department's director of Korean affairs, Sung Kim.

Kim, a Korean-American, has been a key figure in contacts between the United States and North Korean on the overdue nuclear declaration, which has slowed implementation of last year's disarmament agreement.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the declaration is still to come.

But he said the documents, which pertain to North Korea's production of plutonium at its now-closed Yongbyon reactor, are part of the declaration process, which he stressed will be subject to strict verification.

"With respect to the documents, and how they may play in the declaration process, our top three priorities are going to be verification, verification, verification. So this is part of a process that is unfolding. We will see, perhaps, North Korea providing a declaration to China, which is the chair of the six-party talks, and these documents will play a role in that process," he said.

The Bush administration's handling of nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang has come under attack from U.S. conservatives, who allege the State Department is prepared to accept only vague North Korean assurances that its nuclear program, including reported proliferation activity with Syria, has ceased.

The State Department says the pending North Korean declaration will be subject to close scrutiny. A senior official here rejected as false an editorial assertion by the Wall Street Journal Thursday that State Department verification experts are being left out of nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang.

North Korea shut down the Yongbyon reactor complex last year and is in the process of permanently disabling it in exchange for energy aid in the first phase of the six-party accord.

The declaration, in which Pyongyang is to account for all its nuclear activities and holdings including weapons, would clear the way for the next phase of the deal under which North Korea would scrap the program including weapons in return for diplomatic benefits.

In another development, the State Department said a U.S. team discussing possible new U.S. food aid to North Korea has left Pyongyang after what were described as inconclusive talks.

The Bush administration has said it is ready in principle to provide new aid depending on North Korea's actual food situation, competing world needs and a mechanism to assure that the food reaches those truly in need.

U.S. officials say the food issue is completely unrelated to the nuclear talks.