SEOUL (Reuters) - The removal of all nuclear weapons from North Korea next year could pave the way for a summit meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and the reclusive state's leader, Kim Jong-il, a U.S. envoy said on Wednesday.
But U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow said it would be a mistake for the impoverished state to still expect international aid and an improvement in its diplomatic standing if it only takes half measures to end its nuclear program.
"I think that it (a summit) might be possible before the end of President Bush's term if North Korea makes the right decisions and is ready to go all the way, not just disablement but full denuclearization," Vershbow told a security forum.
There has never been a meeting of the leaders of the Korean War opponents with the two sides remaining bitter foes since that conflict ended in a truce, but not a peace treaty, in 1953.
But the tone has changed sharply since communist North Korea agreed in February to start dismantling its nuclear capabilities.
Bush, who once lumped North Korea with Iran and pre-war Iraq as members of an "axis of evil", last week offered a peace treaty if Pyongyang completes nuclear disarmament.
China has also said it was positive towards such a treaty.
The 1953 armistice was signed by China, North Korea and the United States on behalf of U.N. forces.
South Korea, which was not a signatory to the truce, has said the issue of a peace treaty will top its agenda when President Roh Moo-hyun holds summit talks next month in Pyongyang with North Korea's leader.
But Roh has said he will not raise the issue of nuclear disarmament, which is the focus of long-running talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Under the February deal struck by the six countries, North Korea agreed to let in international nuclear inspectors to monitor the shutdown of its Yongbyon nuclear complex, which had produced bomb-grade plutonium, in return for energy aid.
North Korea agreed under the deal to fully account for and disable its nuclear weapons program for more aid.
Once those steps are complete, the six parties will move on to arranging for the removal of all nuclear materials and weapons from the North next year, Vershbow said.
"That is the final stage we'll be discussing next year if we can finish the second stage as we hope by the end of 2007."