The top US nuclear envoy, who just returned from a rare visit to North Korea, said on Friday that Pyongyang was ready to promptly disable its nuclear reactor in weeks and live up to pledges it made in a disarmament deal.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the reclusive state in nearly five years, said talks during his some-24-hour surprise trip to Pyongyang were detailed and positive.
"North Korea indicated that they are prepared, promptly, to shut down the Yongbyon facility as called for in the February agreement," Hill told a news conference in Seoul.
Hill said he expects UN nuclear inspectors will visit North Korea next week to help draw up plans for the reactor shut down as a part of the February deal among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
"The week after that, or two weeks after that, I think we can expect a shut down of this facility," Hill later said in an exclusive interview with broadcaster CNN.
The Soviet-era Yongbyon reactor - the North Korea's source for weapons-grade plutonium - and nearby reprocessing facility are at the heart of its nuclear arms program.
However, a North Korean diplomat in Vienna has raised the prospect of further delays to implementing the February 13 disarmament-for-aid deal, saying an impasse over the North Korea's funds frozen in a Macao bank had still not been resolved.
"Once they get their money ... they are set to shut it down and they confirmed that to me today in Pyongyang," he said, adding the money dispute should be settled quickly.
Hill met North Korea's Foreign Minister, Pak Ui-chun, and nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan. He did not seek a meeting with supreme leader Kim Jong-il.
Washington said Hill's trip to Pyongyang was meant to test "the proposition that the North Korea has made that strategic decision to dismantle ... and give up their nuclear programs".
At the last high-level visit of a State Department official, in 2002, envoy James Kelly confronted North Korea with evidence Washington said pointed to a covert uranium enrichment program.
The crisis following that confrontation led Pyongyang to expel UN nuclear inspectors and culminated in the communist state's first nuclear test last October.
North Korea said last weekend it would re-admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as required under the February accord.
That followed signs that most of the US$25 million in North Korea funds frozen in a Macao bank for nearly two years for suspected links to illicit activity by Pyongyang was making its way back to the North.
But a North Korean diplomat in Vienna, home of the IAEA, said Pyongyang had yet to receive the money and Pyongyang was not ready to sign off on the trip.
Russia now believed the funds would arrive in one of its banks later on Friday, Itar-Tass quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov as saying.
(China Daily via agencies June 23, 2007)