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U.S. envoy says North Korea can scrap nuclear arms in '08

SEOUL (Reuters) - A top U.S. nuclear envoy, who met South Korea’s president-elect on Thursday, said it was possible to end North Korea’s nuclear arms programme this year despite Pyongyang missing a deadline in a disarmament deal.

Chun Yung-woo (R), South Korea's chief envoy to the six-party talks, speaks to the media as his U.S. counterpart Christopher Hill stands after their dinner at a hotel in Seoul January 8, 2008. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill also extended an invitation for Lee Myung-bak, who takes office on February 25, to visit Washington. The former Seoul mayor won a landslide victory on December 19.

“There is no reason why we cannot finish the job in ‘08,” Hill told reporters after meeting Lee.

North Korea missed an end-2007 deadline set in a six-way deal to give a full accounting of its nuclear arms program and answer U.S. suspicions of having a secret program to enrich uranium for weapons.

“Throughout the six-party process, we have had these bumps in the road. We have had these missed deadlines but that ultimately we have been able to continue with the progress,” Hill said.

If energy-starved North Korea makes the nuclear declaration, it could receive 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid and removal from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.

Lee, a conservative who was a former CEO in the Hyundai Group, has pledged to work more closely with the United States on ending the North’s atomic ambitions, which analysts said could bode well for relations between the allies.

Outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun at times made statements critical of Washington when he felt the Bush administration was taking too tough a stand on North Korea.

Hill, who arrived in Seoul from Tokyo, on Thursday departed for Beijing, which has hosted the disarmament talks also involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Hill will next go to Moscow.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani