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US and North Korean nuclear negotiators to meet

The lead US and North Korean nuclear negotiators are expected to meet in Beijing next week, a diplomatic source said, in a sign Pyongyang may make a declaration of its atomic programs.

The talks would be between US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and senior North Korean diplomat Kim Kye-gwan, said the source, who declined to be named.

Pyongyang undertook to produce the declaration on its nuclear program as part of a broader multilateral deal under which North Korea, which detonated an atomic device in October 2006, agreed to abandon all its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives.

The six-party agreement was struck by the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

After three-way US-Japan-South Korea talks on Monday, Hill was upbeat about North Korea producing the declaration and said he expected “a quickening pace” in the diplomacy in the next few weeks and he hoped to visit Beijing and Moscow soon.

Asked on Thursday when Pyongyang's declaration might be produced, Hill told reporters: “I am not in a position really to make any announcements right now, but things are moving ahead.”

He declined to say whether he would meet North Korea's Kim. When asked if there was reason to do so, Hill said: “We had a trilateral meeting which we thought was very successful, and at some point we do want to brief other participants in the six parties, including China and Russia.”

Analysts said that they regarded the flurry of diplomacy, as well as the fact that North Korea earlier this month turned over 18,822 pages of documents related to its plutonium-based program, as signs of progress.

“It appears that there's been significant progress on one part of the data declaration - to be sure, a very important part - that related to the plutonium-based weapons,” said Bruce Klingner of Washington's Heritage Foundation think tank.

Hill stressed that the documents were only one part of what the United States needs to verify any declaration, which is to be provided to China. China hosts the six-party process.

US officials have said that in addition they will need physical access to North Korean nuclear facilities, the ability to take and test samples from them and the right to interview people involved in the program to verify the declaration.

North Korea was originally due to produce the declaration by December 31.

It has been held up partly because of the secretive, communist state's reluctance to discuss any transfer of nuclear technology to other countries, notably Syria, as well as to account for its suspected pursuit of uranium enrichment.

The United States accuses North Korea of helping Syria with a suspected nuclear reactor project that Israel destroyed in a September air strike.

Washington also has accused Pyongyang of pursuing a uranium enrichment program, which could provide it with a second way to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons in addition to the plutonium-based program used in its 2006 nuclear test.

Under a face-saving compromise, the declaration is expected to be split in two parts: North Korea's detailed disclosure of its plutonium program on the one hand and its “acknowledgment” of US concerns about its suspected uranium enrichment and proliferation activities on the other.

Skeptics have argued that allowing North Korea simply to “acknowledge” US concerns on uranium enrichment and proliferation is not good enough. Despite the criticism, the administration was expected to accept such a formula to keep open the possibility of ending Pyongyang's nuclear programs. (Reuters)