The leading U.S. diplomat conducting talks with North Korea and its neighbors on the nation's nuclear program says verification will be the most important aspect of the effort to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.  Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill made the remarks during a speech in Washington and VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details.

Last week North Korea submitted a long-awaited document that listed its nuclear holdings.  North Korean officials also demolished the cooling tower at the country's Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

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

Ambassador Hill, the leading U.S. diplomat to the six-party talks, says the ultimate goal of the negotiations is clear.

"We have to have complete denuclearization," he said.  "We have to make sure there is no stone left unturned.  We have to make sure there is no clandestine uranium enrichment program that is somehow undeclared and unexcavated."

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 to its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Following the nuclear declaration, President 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.

The next major step is verifying that North Korea has made a full disclosure of its nuclear facilities.

"Verification is absolutely key to this whole process," said Hill.  "People often say how can you trust them?  This has nothing to do with trust.  This has everything to do with verification."

The six nations involved in talks with North Korea are expected to meet later this month to discuss the verification process.

Hill says the long, drawn-out diplomatic discussions are critical to establishing a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.  

"At the end of the day the issue of North Korea's aspirations for nuclear weapons is an issue rooted in the region, an issue that can not be solved by the U.S. alone, an issue that really needs the active engagement of its neighbors," he said.

Pyongyang's declaration came six months after it was promised and some critics say it falls short of a complete statement once sought by the Bush administration that was to include an admission of proliferation activities with Syria and other countries.

The list of nuclear facilities does not include the number of atomic bombs North Korea has already made.

"The main thing I take from Ambassador Hill's comments is that this is a problem that is going to be left to the successor of President Bush," said Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  "It is clear that the verification, the actual denuclearization of North Korea is not going to happen under President Bush's watch."

North Korea's declaration clears the way for more international assistance, specifically food and fuel, which are in short supply in the isolated, communist country.