U.S. Hopeful of N. Korean Denuclearization

After a rare two-day trip to Pyongyang, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said he was optimistic over dismantling North Korea's nuclear program.

Shortly after arrival in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Hill told reporters that his two meetings with North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-Kwan and Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun were "buoyed by a sense that we are going to be able to achieve our full objectives — that is, the complete denuclearization."

Hill, the top U.S. nuclear envoy, said he hoped the visit would boost momentum in the stalled six-party talks. Hill said the North Koreans had expressed full cooperation and were ready to promptly shut down the nuclear reactor in Yongbyun, in accordance with the landmark February agreement among the six nations involved in talks on North Korea's nuclear programs.

Hill acknowledged that the six-party talks had experienced "obviously serious bump in the road" and came back "burdened by the realization that we will have to spend a great deal of time and effort, and a lot of work in achieving this."

Amid suspicions that the United States is giving up to North Korea's long-held demand for one-on-one talks, Hill, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit North Korea in nearly five years, played down his visit, noting that he was just responding to an invitation by his North Korean counterpart. He said he was not asked to deliver any special messages from President Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"I want to emphasize in going there it was to discuss the six-party process, not to make negotiations," he said.

Hill said the next step was to wait for China, the host country to the six-party talks, to set up a date to open up the next round of talks, possibly in early July.

North Korea has been under pressure to take concrete steps to fulfill its commitment to give up its nuclear program. In February, the six-nation talks came to a landmark agreement to help North Korea get back on its feet. The multilateral deal had been reached after almost four years of ineffective negotiations, with the United States promising to free $25 million in allegedly illicit North Korean funds in a local Macao bank.

However, the deal was held back because of technical problems in transferring the funds to the North Koreans. The cash dispute was finally resolved June 15 after the United States announced it had completed the transfer to Pyongyang, via New York and Russia. The day after, North Korea invited U.N. nuclear inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to discuss the process of dismantlement.

The IAEA officials were expelled in 2002 after North Korea announced itself a nuclear power.