The top U.S. diplomat involved in talks on North Korea's nuclear disarmament says the country's human rights record is abysmal.  At the same time, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill says important progress is being made to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.  VOA Correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this report from Washington.

In remarks before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Ambassador Christopher Hill says he is continuing to press his North Korean counterparts to improve human rights.

He calls the country's extensive prison-camp system a scar on the Korean peninsula.

"The DPRK's human rights record is, quite frankly, abysmal and everyday that the people of North Korea continue to suffer represents an unacceptable continuation of oppression," said Hill.

Hill says North Koreans held in prison reportedly suffer from torture, forced abortions, and, in some cases, execution.

He says human rights will be an important part of future negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program.

In June, North Korea submitted a long-awaited report listing its nuclear holdings and demolished the cooling tower at its main Yongbyon nuclear facility.

The moves are viewed as key steps in ending the nation's nuclear weapons program, a long sought goal of the United States and North Korea's neighbors.

The report did not include the number of atomic bombs North Korea has made.

Hill says the list of nuclear facilities did recognize important concerns.

"The declaration package that the DPRK provided to the Chinese on June 26 addresses its nuclear program," he said. "It acknowledged our concerns about uranium enrichment and its past nuclear proliferation activities, specifically with Syria."

China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and South Korea have promised Pyongyang energy, financial and diplomatic benefits in exchange for actions leading to an end of its nuclear-weapons capabilities.

Following the nuclear declaration, U.S. President George Bush announced he is ready to lift some trade sanctions against North Korea and is rescinding the country's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Hill says the focus now is to develop a rigorous verification program.

"We have made some important progress on the six-party talks, but I must tell you, as a person involved in it, that we have a lot more to be done," he said.

This week, the State Department's director of Korean affairs, Sung Kim, is visiting China to move forward efforts to determine how to verify North Korea's accounting of its nuclear program.