Talks and fuel aid aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program could move ahead in coming weeks, a US nuclear envoy said Sunday, welcoming Pyongyang's invitation to UN inspectors.
The chief American negotiator to the six-party talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, told reporters in Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar that North Korea's invitation to the United Nations' atomic watchdog to send a delegation to Pyongyang opened the way to fresh momentum in the negotiations.
"It is a welcome step. It's got to be followed by a number of other steps. But it is certainly a step without which we would not be able to make progress," Hill said.
He said US diplomats in New York had spoken with North Korea officials and he expected more discussions between them.
The North Korea's state news agency, KCNA, said late on Saturday that the country had invited a working-level delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit.
KCNA said Pyongyang's atomic energy department had written to the Vienna-based IAEA about holding discussions for verifying and monitoring "the suspension of the operations of nuclear facilities".
Hill said he did not know when IAEA officials would reach North Korea. "I would assume very quickly," he said.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed that the organization had received the invitation and said it would decide its next step today, Kyodo news agency reported.
Hill said South Korea's foreign minister had told him Seoul was preparing to send fuel oil aid to the North as part of a nascent disarmament deal reached in February.
He said a tanker was being contracted to transport the oil. "They will be putting out the order for the fuel on Monday so I think we're talking about a couple of weeks," he said.
Pyongyang's invitation to the IAEA follows the release of North Korean funds blocked in Macao for almost two years. Pyongyang's insistence that the money be freed had stalled international efforts to end the North's nuclear program.
The South Korea's YTN news channel reported that the IAEA team could enter the North in the next two weeks. Their inspection could lead to another round of the six-party talks to review progress and discuss the next steps toward nuclear disarmament, YTN said.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso reacted cautiously to Pyongyang's announcement.
"Will they really allow the IAEA to inspect (Yongbyon), or not? There's the possibility that they (the inspections) could be halted at any time," he said, according to Kyodo.
Hill said he would be in Beijing today for discussions with Chinese diplomats, and he hoped the six-party talks would reconvene in early July.
(China Daily via agencies June 18, 2007)