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US Cites Signs of Progress on North Korean Nuclear Issue

The State Department said Thursday there is "increasing confidence" among U.S. officials of progress in the stalled diplomatic process aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to advance the issue in a trip to Asia next week. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here decline to elaborate on an assertion by Secretary Rice that North Korea will "soon" make the long-awaited declaration on its nuclear program.

But at the same time, they say recent diplomatic contacts on the issue are giving rise to at least cautious optimism that the six-party process - now more than six months behind schedule - may soon be moving again.

North Korea agreed last year to eventually scrap its nuclear program, including weapons, in return for energy aid and diplomatic benefits from the other parties to the talks-the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

The current phase of the process was to have been capped at the end of last year by a North Korean declaration of all its nuclear holdings and activities, including any involvement in proliferation.

Secretary Rice told Washington's conservative Heritage Foundation late Wednesday that North Korea will soon hand over the declaration to China, the chair of the talks, and that the United States would be ready to reciprocate by removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and dropping related sanctions.

In a talk with reporters, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey refused to say what specifically was behind Rice's assertion but spoke of a generally hopeful mood in recent Korea diplomacy.

"I think this is just the result of a lot of extensive discussions and work, and I think an increasing confidence that we're getting to the end of this particular phase," he noted. "But I am hesitant to declare any kind of certainty on this, and I think as she [Rice] said one has to remain fairly skeptical in this process as we move forward. We will know that we have a declaration when we actually have it."

U.S. diplomacy on the issue is accelerating. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks, consulted Thursday in Tokyo with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts and is to go on to similar meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing.

The six-party process is also expected to be a key issue for Secretary Rice, who attends a meeting of G-8 foreign ministers next week in Japan, and continues on to South Korea and China. Spokesman Casey said in addition to political talks with Chinese officials in Beijing, Rice will pay a condolence visit to Chengdu, the central Chinese city ravaged by last month's earthquake. The Secretary begins the week-long foreign trip next Monday in Germany.

In a related issue, spokesman Casey rejected an assertion in a Washington Post story Thursday that the Bush administration, focused on the nuclear talks, has "largely forgotten" about the case of a Korean-born U.S. permanent resident abducted by North Korea.

The Post said U.S. resident Kim Dong-shik, a Christian missionary, was abducted by North Korean agents in northeastern China in 2000, after apparently angering the Pyongyang government by helping North Koreans flee their homeland.

Casey said U.S. officials remain aware of, and continue to pursue the case of Kim, which he noted is prominently mentioned in the State Department's annual global reports on both human rights and religious freedom.

Casey also said the six-party process is not intended to resolve every problem in U.S.-North Korean relations. He said even if it leads, as envisaged, to normal relations, there will still be hundreds if not thousands of outstanding issues between the two countries.