WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea appears close to making a long-overdue declaration of its nuclear programs, the top U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang said on Monday in an upbeat assessment after months of difficult negotiations.
“We are getting to the point where the declaration is coming,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “I can’t tell you precisely days or weeks but I think we are getting to the point where we are going to be, possibly, getting to this declaration.”
The declaration is part of a broader multilateral deal under which North Korea, which detonated an atomic device in October 2006, has 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.
Speaking after meetings with senior South Korean and Japanese officials, Hill said he expected the pace of the six-party talks to accelerate and that he was likely to visit Beijing and Moscow to consult Chinese and Russian officials.
“We expect to have, kind of, a quickening pace in the next few weeks,” he told reporters, standing beside South Korea’s Kim Sook and Japan’s Akitaka Saiki, who represent their countries at the six-party talks.
“There has been a lot of work done on the declaration ... that’s one of the reasons we wanted to get together today,” Hill said. “We just expect that things will start moving along and we want to make sure we’re in sync as we go forward.”
Once the declaration has been produced, the United States is expected to drop North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and to end sanctions imposed under the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act.
The isolated, communist state was originally due to produce the declaration by December 31.
It has been held up partly because of Pyongyang’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.
It 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 U.S. concerns about its suspected uranium enrichment and proliferation activities on the other.
North Korea this month gave the United States copies of 18,822 pages of documents on its plutonium program.
However, skeptics have argued that allowing North Korea simply to “acknowledge” U.S. 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.
The next phase of the six-party agreement calls for North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-based program at Yongbyon. In the third and final phase, the United States hopes it will actually hand over its stockpile of plutonium.
Editing by Doina Chiacu