The chief U.S. envoy to the negotiations on ending North Korea's nuclear program says Friday the first ministerial-level meeting of the six-party talks could occur pretty soon. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill goes to Beijing for another envoy-level session next week. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Envoys of the six parties are to convene in Beijing the middle of next week, amid signs the process under which North Korea is to abandon its nuclear program in return for aid and diplomatic benefits is gaining momentum.

Technical experts from the United States, Russia and China were in North Korea this week to examine ways the country's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon can be disabled under terms of the disarmament deal reached in broad form in September of 2005, and finalized last February.

At a news conference, Assistant Secretary Hill expressed satisfaction with results of the experts' visit, which came at North Korea's invitation.

He said he and fellow envoys next week will map out a plan for actually disabling the Yongbyon facility by the end of the year, and for completing the declaration of all North Korea's nuclear holdings including weapons required under the February accord.

Hill said if the envoys meeting is a success, the first foreign ministers' meeting of the six party process could occur shortly thereafter and would address the end-stage of the disarmament process. "This would be a real sign that we've kind of achieved a little momentum in this process. They'd review what we've been doing. And then they'd look ahead, a sort of sneak preview of the next phase, and I think the ministers will want to look very carefully at things like the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism idea that we have. And I think they would like to look ahead what we envision as the final stage of de-nuclearization, which is the abandonment of the fissile material - the weapons - pursuant to the opening paragraph of the September '05 statement," he said.

The six-party talks, which began in 2003, include North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States and host China. The ministerial level session, likely to be held in October, would include a first-ever meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun.

Hill faced several questions about news reports this week quoting U.S. intelligence sources as saying North Korea may be cooperating with Syria on building some sort of nuclear facility in the Middle East country.

The reports have been cited by U.S. domestic critics of the six-party process as evidence that North Korea, while talking disarmament, may be engaged in nuclear proliferation.

Hill said he was not in a position to discuss what U.S. intelligence may know about such activity. But he stressed that ending North Korean proliferation activity is a high U.S. priority. "I can assure you that the issue of proliferation is and has been since the beginning of the six-party process very much on our minds. Because again, what is the problem with nuclear weapons in North Korea? One, it's a problem of regional stability. Two, it's a problem that these weapons and programs could find themselves elsewhere. So this has always has been a big concern of ours and will continue to be," he said.

Hill said the United States is preparing to ship heavy fuel oil to North Korea, which under the February agreement was promised one million tons of oil or equivalent aid from the others in the six-party talks in return for disarmament steps.

The senior diplomat also said the United States is considering, outside of the nuclear talks, the provision of substantial food aid to North Korea to make up for crop losses in recent floods there.

Despite its political differences with the communist state, the United States has long been a major supplier of humanitarian aid to North Korea.