The State Department said Friday all six parties to the talks on North Korea's nuclear program will convene at the ministerial level for the first time next week in Singapore. The meeting will bring together Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her North Korean counterpart, Pak Ui Chun. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The six-party meeting, on the sidelines of an ASEAN foreign ministers dialogue in Singapore, is being described here as an informal gathering. But it will nonetheless be a significant milestone in the Chinese-organized nuclear negotiations, which have been underway since 2003.

North Korea agreed in principle in 2005 to give up its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid and diplomatic benefits from the other parties to the talks - the United States, Japan, Russia, South Korea and host China.

A detailed agreement was completed last year, and the process gained momentum in late June when North Korea issued a promised declaration of its nuclear activities, and the United States begun the process of lifting sanctions against the reclusive communist state.

Briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the ministerial-level gathering will be a useful follow-on to a heads-of-delegation meeting held earlier this month in Beijing.

McCormack said the ministerial talks would be loosely structured and unlikely to produce any specific outcome. But, he said, the talks would be important in that in the wake of the North Korean declaration, the ministers will begin to chart the final phase of the process yielding a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

"We have made progress up to this point, all the parties," said McCormack. "North Korea has made progress on fulfilling its commitments. We are doing so ourselves, as are the other parties to the six-party talks. And once we complete phase two, we are going to be moving to a crucial phase, phase three, and that phase ends with the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. There are no interim steps, and that means North Korea being completely out of the nuclear business."

McCormack said there was no current plan for Rice to meet separately with her North Korean counterpart but he expects them to interact fully in the six-way session.

The agreement reached last year anticipates a formal ministerial level conference and McCormack said such a meeting will still be held, and that the Singapore discussion is not a substitute for it.

Rice is scheduled to be in Singapore next Wednesday and Thursday, on a foreign tour that takes her first to Abu Dhabi early next week for informal meetings with Gulf foreign ministers.

After the ASEAN-related meetings in Singapore, she visits Australia and New Zealand and attends a meeting of Pacific island leaders in Samoa.